Texas Earthquake Injection Wells

Injection Wells: Mysterious Cause of Texas Earthquakes or Convenient Scapegoat?

During the early 1800s, a band of English craftspeople, the Luddites, formed a collective and destroyed new textile machines. They were afraid of the new technology and assumed it would deprive them of their livelihood.

In such an account, fear and indignation derives from a misperception of a personal threat. To quote a familiar adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same. On an almost weekly basis, those scanning the headlines can find another example of technophobic alarmism.

Consider, for example, the latest scare tactic co-opted by groups in opposition to hydraulic fracking. They contend that disposal wells associated with natural gas well drilling, also known as “injection wells,” have set off tremors in North Texas, and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area in particular.

In recent years, gas drilling has proliferated in the Barnett Shale, an immense sedimentary rock formation underlying almost 20 North Texas counties. In the same general timeframe, the area has witnessed a dramatic increase in seismic activity. But, as anyone with scientific training understands, mere coincidence does not indicate cause.

To ensure that no fresh water supplies are polluted (another allegation surrounding fracking), injection wells dispose of wastewater deep beneath the earth’s surface, between impermeable layers of rock. Researchers at Southern Methodist University investigating the matter have concluded that the overwhelming majority of the 2400 injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are not in any way associated with the recent uptick in earthquake frequency.

Their report unequivocally states, “There has been no evidence that hydrofracturing, drilling or natural gas production played any role in the events based on event timing, size distribution and kinematics.” Furthermore, the Railroad Commission of Texas, responsible for overseeing the gas and energy industry in the state, has announced that none of its data gives any indication of a “significant correlation” between seismic activity and injection practices.

It is true that the Fort Worth basin does not have many earthquakes on record, but geologists believe that the tremors in North Texas are connected to a more extensive trend occurring from the Midwest all the way to the Atlantic Seaboard. The U.S. Geological Survey and the National Academy of Sciences are currently conducting additional studies that may provide greater insight into the matter. Fortunately, seismologists reassure us that, thus far, the fault lines in North Texas appear minute, incapable of producing a big jolt.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be amazed that rumors persist regarding the dangers of fracking even though ample scientific evidence indicates that the entire process, including all related activities, is safe. After all, sensationalism sells a story today just as it always has in the past. At WPP, unless we see solid empirical evidence to the contrary, we will continue to promote hydraulic fracking as an essential, cost-effective practice that accelerates us on our way to energy independence.