WFAA Makes Shaky Conclusions about Seismicity in North Texas

A recent WFAA8 news report missed an opportunity to bring a number of facts to light while discussing seismic activity in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.  The story pitched two prominent geologists — Craig Pearson and Brian Stump — at the center of an ongoing discussion surrounding seismic activity, but unfortunately focused more attention on criticizing one of the scientists than it did presenting facts that would be useful to the public.

At issue is the recent occurrence of seismic activity in Irving, Tex., and the Texas Railroad Commission’s (RRC) ongoing assessment.  Induced seismic activity research is not new, but the study of the Irving seismicity is only just beginning, making the situation far from settled.  Seismicity can come from a variety of industrial activities, but as the National Resource Council stated in a 2012 report, “shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic event.” The NRC added that induced seismicity from wastewater disposal wells – relative to the tens of thousands of such wells operating across the country – is also rare.

A more nuanced review of seismicity could highlight the actions being taken in Ohio.  As EID noted last year, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has been working with the community, researchers, and industry to find a resolution to seismicity concerns.  Here in Texas, a similarly comprehensive approach is underway. In fact, just last year the Texas RRC enacted  new wastewater disposal well rules, which incorporate best practices and oversight. They also give the Commission greater authority to take action against disposal wells that may be linked to seismic events.

Understanding the differences between hydraulic fracturing and the disposal of wastewater in injection wells is also worth mentioning.  As the EPA asserts with their oversight within Underground Injection Control Program, there is substantial oversight of wastewater injection wells, but that does not detract from the need for further assessment.

Unfortunately, the WFAA8 report focused more on the emotions than the facts.  Quixotically, the reporter characterizes Pearson as an unlikely candidate for the Texas RRC review of seismic events, glibly stating the Commission “found Dr. Craig Pearson managing a sheep and goat ranch.”  Pearson’s past experience includes years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and, among other things, as a leader in the Geophysics Group, Earth and Environmental Sciences Division. The reporter, Brett Shipp, has long been a skeptic of the Railroad Commission, so much so that his last major foray into the scientific discussion over hydraulic fracturing (and the RRC’s oversight) resulted in an embarrassing unforced error.

Attempting to define conclusive arguments, the story notes a 2010 study of seismic activity in the Dallas-Fort/Worth area with the reporter pronouncing that, “The study established a definitive link between disposal well activity and earthquakes,” but he then goes on to quote the study directly in which it states, “It is plausible that the fluid injection (from two nearby disposal wells) could have affected … the fault, reactivating it and generating the DFW earthquakes,” (emphasis added).   Thankfully science defines definitive conclusions with greater rigor.

The article concluded with quotes from Sharon Wilson, an energetic opponent of domestic oil and gas.  She is unabashed in her discomfort of the Railroad Commission and of Pearson, but the story fails to note that she works for the environmental organization Earthworks, a national advocacy group focused on dismantling America’s oil and gas industry. Instead, Wilson is given the benign title of “drilling reform activist.”

Discussing the breadth of the issue is critical to understanding the root cause of seismicity.  As many have noted, there is not a definitive understanding on the underlying causes for seismic activity, but that is why Dr. Craig Pearson’s review of the research is so critical.  As the WFAA8 story correctly notes, Dr. Pearson is less than a year into his review, and most should expect an appropriately exhaustive assessment before jumping to premature conclusions. Unfortunately, WFAA refused to follow that prudent course.

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