TEXAS VIEW: Fracking earthquakes are a devil’s bargain Texas doesn’t need

THE POINT: Will the Texas Railroad Commission step up?

As if our state didn’t already have enough disasters — floods, fires, tornadoes, explosions — we’ve added a new kind to the list. At around 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, Texas recorded the fourth-largest earthquake in the state’s history, a 5.3 magnitude event. Thankfully it was miles south of Mentone, a West Texas town with a total census count of 10 souls. The tremors, however, rippled all the way to central New Mexico.

The relevance of this particular earthquake wasn’t its relatively high magnitude or the minimal damage it caused. It’s that it happened smack in the middle of the Permian Basin, the nation’s largest oil field.

That’s no coincidence. Temblors in Texas have risen sharply over the past decade, and research has linked the increased seismic activity to fracking. After oil and gas are pumped from production wells, they’re separated from the groundwater that comes up with them. That water is toxic, and often radioactive, so it’s typically injected back into the porous rock formations. That creates fluid pressure on ancient fault lines. Eventually that pressure builds to the point that the fault lines slip, causing earthquakes.

Oil and gas producers have made a devil’s bargain with Texas’ geography. They print money by extracting oil and gas from this desolate and yet bountiful region — the Permian generated roughly $182 billion in gross domestic product this year alone. In turn, they drastically alter our underground geology, leading to earthquakes, sinkholes and even permanent saltwater lakes created from briny, contaminated water.

Meanwhile, the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency tasked with oversight of the oil and gas industry, mostly neglects its responsibilities. Will they step up this time?

The earthquake site overlaps Culberson County and Reeves County, a particularly oil-rich section of the Permian hit by quakes a year ago. After those, the railroad commission and county officials established a plan: After a quake of 4.5 or higher, the commission would prohibit operators from injecting wastewater underground for up to two years. The Chronicle’s Amanda Drane reported that up to 600,000 barrels a day of injection capacity could be lost if the commission imposes this rule, which of course would impact the bottom lines of many oil and gas operators, as well as the economic wellbeing of many West Texas boomtowns. Consider that the housekeepers at two “man camps” for oil field workers north of Mentone get paid $45,000, along with free room and board and a full benefits package.

The railroad commission told the editorial board in a statement that it was working with operators to limit injection wells in the area where the earthquake happened, though the agency did not specifically say whether it would enforce its own rule.

Following through should be the minimum. Temporarily shutting down injection wells while hoping that others don’t trip up fault lines is a shortsighted, whack-a-mole strategy. What the commission needs is a regulatory system that accounts for Texas’ geographic limitations.

We’re not holding our breath. The railroad commissioners are so chummy with the industry that they rake in campaign donations from oil and gas companies, while also trading oil and gas stocks and owning mineral interests.

Ideally, to decide where operators are allowed to drill, the commission would use the plethora of data that show which parts of the Permian Basin have problematic seismic activity. It would enforce responsible water management and spur investment in facilities and pipelines that recycle the produced water used for drilling. It would limit operators from blasting produced water back underground or discharging it in our rivers, creeks and streams.

That level of planning would be good for business, giving operators the ability to invest and drill accordingly. It would also protect Texas’ natural environment and mitigate the risk to property and people. It’s the sort of commonsense policy that we wish we could expect of that commission all the time.

Houston Chronicle