By guest writer Ryan Sitton
Headlines proclaiming that oil and gas drilling are directly linked to earthquakes in North Texas have been dominating energy news this week. You might even have read a few:
• EPA: North Texas earthquakes likely linked to oil and gas drilling
• EPA links oil and gas drilling to Texas quakes
• EPA tells railroad commission that fracking is causing earthquakes in North Texas
• EPA sees link between fracking and earthquakes
• Fracking and earthquakes linked, EPA tells Texas, in rebuke of state rules
None of those headlines is accurate.
On August 15, the federal environmental protection agency published an end-of-year evaluation of the Texas underground injection control program administered by the state’s railroad commission.
The program controls the way in which wastewater from oil and gas activity is injected into underground disposal wells in nonproducing porous rock formations.
One sentence in the 61-page document forms the basis of the inaccurate headlines above:
“In light of findings from several researchers, its own analysis of some cases and the fact that earthquakes in some areas diminished following shut-in or reduced injection volume in targeted wells, EPA believes there is a significant possibility that north-Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells.”
It is true that in a small number of cases with the right set of conditions – disposal wells located in close proximity to critically stressed faults that are properly oriented – disposal wells can cause earthquakes.
However, despite the clear language in the EPA report that disposal wells, and not other oil and gas activities, might be correlated to seismicity, the public has been misled to believe that hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and drilling cause earthquakes. The media need to be more accurate when they report highly technical news.
To be clear, drilling for oil or gas does not cause earthquakes. Drilling is as simple as it sounds – the act of boring a hole into the ground to reach the oil below.
It is a widely known fact in the scientific community, including the EPA and the US geological survey, that drilling and fracking do not typically produce the amount of pressure necessary to cause a felt seismic event.
At present, we cannot definitively say that there is or is not a direct causal relationship between disposal wells and earthquakes in Texas. It is absolutely possible – and that is why we at the railroad commission are studying it and have taken concrete steps to strengthen our disposal-well rules.
In fact, in its report, the EPA recognized the commission’s diligence in ensuring that the environment and the public are protected during disposal operations in Texas, stating:
• “These values reflect an outstanding enforcement monitoring program”;
• “The RRC testing and surveillance program exceeds the testing requirement”; and
• “The RRC is also commended for establishing new regulations specific to seismicity, including solidifying RRC authority to take appropriate action related to injection-well operations”.
In regard to the seismic activity in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2015, the EPA recommended “the close monitoring of injection activity through daily recording and reporting of accurate injection pressures and volumes from area disposal wells”.
The railroad commission already does that and will continue to do so. The EPA report ultimately validates what we are doing at the commission to ensure public and environmental safety.
As an engineer with 20 years’ experience in oil and gas and, as a railroad commissioner, it’s my job to make sure that the 27 million people of our state are accurately informed about the energy industry and feel confident in the methods by which our oil and gas is being produced.
Fear tactics and attention-grabbing headlines don’t serve anyone and it’s important that Texans know that the very same industry putting thousands of people to work, millions of dollars into our schools and roads and money into our economy, is the same one working to keep them and their environment safe.
Ryan Sitton, one of three Texas railroad commissioners, is a mechanical engineer who lives in Friendswood.
Editor’s note: You can find the reports behind the five media headlines online through the links included in our electronic version of this article below.
Where to read the disputed reports
THE REPORTS to which railroad commissioner Ryan Sitton refers in his guest column are all online and can be found at:
EPA: North Texas earthquakes likely linked to oil and gas drilling:
EPA links oil and gas drilling to Texas quakes:
EPA tells railroad commission that fracking is causing earthquakes in North Texas:
EPA sees link between fracking and earthquakes:
Fracking and earthquakes linked, EPA tells Texas, in rebuke of state rules:
A question of cause and effect
By Ian White
CONCERNED about commissioner Sitton’s accusations against members of our profession, The Post has examined the coverage of the EPA report to which he alludes.
We found that, of the five headlines cited in his article, three were from original internet reports and the other two were posted on websites that had repeated the information from one of the original publications.
The three original reports appeared in the online news sites Texas Tribune on Monday, August 22, and San Antonio Current and California-based Courthouse News one day later.
The two websites to republish the information included in the Texas Tribune report were Washington-based The Hill and District Sentinel.
We read all five reports, starting with Jim Malewitz’s Texas Tribune account as it was published first of the five. As well as citing the EPA report, Malewitz interviewed an oil-and-gas industry attorney and the director of lobby group Environment Texas and also cited references to five previous Tribune articles about north-Texas earthquakes and their possible link to the industry’s subterranean activities.
The report seemed balanced and lacking in histrionics, but did its evidence support its headline? We believe it did, especially as the headline contains its own caveat in its inclusion of the word “likely”.
We then contacted Malewitz, who said: “My story was not based on ‘one line’ of an EPA report, as Sitton wrote.”
He added: “I agree that journalists should understand the science on which they report. My story accurately described the question at hand – do oilfield waste injections have something to do with a surge of earthquakes in north Texas?
“The EPA concluded ‘There is a significant possibility’, citing its own case studies and other independent research.”
He referred us to the entire passage quoted from the EPA report, which the Tribune has published online at static.texastribune.org/media/documents/EPAreviewRRC.pdf.
In that passage, the “one sentence” about which Sitton complains is immediately preceded by: “[Railroad commission] representatives have publicly indicated that available scientific data do not sufficiently support a causal relationship between class II waste disposal wells in north Texas and recorded earthquakes.”
Reading the two sentences together, it is clear that the second expresses EPA disagreement with the commission in that respect, but has the public “been misled to believe” that fracking and drilling cause earthquakes, as Sitton charges?
The answer would appear to hinge on whether one regards “fracking and drilling” as an exercise devoid of any relationship with wastewater disposal wells.
The wastewater is, in fact, a byproduct of oil-and-gas extraction including both standard drilling and fracking, which involves injecting fluids into subterranean porous rock to force the oil and gas it contains to rise to the surface.
To dispose of the wastewater, it is injected back into the rock, a practice that could similarly cause fractures in the rock.
Clearly, while Sitton appears to argue that extraction and disposal are not related – “the clear language in the EPA report that disposal wells, and not other oil and gas activities, might be correlated to seismicity” – there is a cause-and-effect association that leads us to hold that, indeed, they are.
For that reason, it does not seem unreasonable to record the EPA report as discussing the possibility of fracking-associated activities causing nearby low-strength earthquakes. Unfortunately, the San Antonio Current headline does go further, partly justifying Sitton’s distress, but the report beneath it is more measured and we believe that the tenor of the complete work fairly describes the disagreement between the EPA and the railroad commission.
In the best interests of journalistic transparency, we are happy to allow the commissioner to express his frustration in whichever way he feels appropriate. However, having examined both sides of the story, we advise our readers to be wary of semantics from one disagreeable party only and to evaluate the full debate before drawing conclusions on the merits of either view.