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earthquakes

Tracking earthquakes

It’s a thing.

Texas, home to two of the nation’s busiest oilfields, now has a new way for the public to track in real time how many earthquakes are rattling the Lone Star State since the expanded use of new drilling techniques.

TexNet, which the University of Texas said is the nation’s most advanced state-run seismic monitoring system, includes 22 permanent monitoring stations and another 40 that are portable. The system was formed in 2015 thanks to $4.47 million in state funding.

The Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico and the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas continue to see some of the nation’s strongest drilling activity. Those regions, along with the Dallas-Fort Worth area, have all seen an increase in earthquakes, according to a statement earlier this month from the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

“Small earthquake events have become more common in Texas recently,” Scott Tinker, director of the bureau, said in the statement. “We are now positioned to learn more about them and, hopefully, to understand how to mitigate their impacts in the future.”

The UT Bureau of Economic Geology press release about this is here, and the official TexNet webpage, at which you can get all the data, is here. It would be nice to live in a world where this wasn’t needed, but it is so you may as well be aware of it. Texas Monthly has more.

Earthquake!

It’s a real risk in Dallas now.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has a 1 to 5 percent chance of experiencing an earthquake strong enough to damage buildings in the next year, the U.S. Geological Survey said Monday.

That risk has grown tenfold since 2008, when the area began experiencing a surge of mild to moderate-sized quakes, said Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project at the USGS in an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News. North Texas’ earthquake hazard is now on par with parts of Oklahoma and California.

“One of the big concerns for me is that there is a very high population density in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and this activity is taking place within that area,” he said.

Last week, The News obtained a report, produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailing the potential damage from earthquakes of magnitude 4.8 and 5.6, which fall within the hazard map predictions.

The vast majority of damage to buildings would be minor, such as cracks in walls and ceilings. “I don’t want people to feel like their houses are all going to come down,” Petersen said.

But he said he couldn’t rule out a larger earthquake because the Dallas-Fort Worth area has long faults running through it that may have the potential to rupture.

Earthquakes and their risks are in the news this week because of a new report from the US Geological Survey that mapped out the risks of both natural and human-induced earthquakes. Here’s NPR.

A decade ago, an Oklahoman could count the number of noticeable quakes on her fingers. “In this past year, we had over 900,” says USGS seismic hazard expert Mark Petersen. “So the rates have surged.”

Petersen says induced quakes have become more frequent because there’s more wastewater from oil and gas operations around the country that has to be disposed of. Companies pump it down into underground wells, and sometimes that water raises pressure on underground faults that then slip and cause small quakes.

Industry officials say the percentage of waste wells that pose quake risks is very low. But with the rise in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which produces a lot of polluted water that needs to be disposed of, the overall number of waste wells around the country has skyrocketed.

The new maps also include the risks of natural quakes around the country, as they have in the past. Those risks haven’t changed much. But the number of induced quakes has increased tenfold since 2014, according to the USGS.

Petersen notes that most of these induced quakes are not likely to bring down buildings. Most are in the range of magnitude 3 or 4, which are minor. But some are above magnitude 5, which can do serious damage — cause cracks in your house, for example, or in bridges and roads.

[…]

“I think that we need help people understand that they do face a risk in these areas of induced earthquake activity,” Petersen says, “and they need to take precautions just like people in California do.”

Taking precautions against induced earthquakes — such as strengthening buildings or changing insurance rates — might be tricky, though.

Mark Zoback, a geophysicist at Stanford University who studies induced quakes, says: “It’s important to recognize the risk that these maps point out, but that risk is going to change depending on what’s happening on the ground.” Wastewater wells may not be active for more than a few months or a year; after that, they may no longer pose a risk. Meanwhile, it can take years for a state or community to change building codes to make structures more quake-sturdy.

Moreover, some states have started to ban or limit waste wells in these quake zones. “And in the few places where the injection has stopped,” Zoback says, “the earthquakes have stopped.”

Zoback adds that the boom in oil and gas exploration in some places is dwindling, which would likely mean fewer waste wells and lower risk. On the other hand, wherever the industry drills new waste wells could become the next quake hot spot.

Can’t wait to see what the discussion of this looks like in next year’s Legislature. Assuming they’re allowed to talk about it at all, of course. Vox and the Chron have more.

Other towns consider fracking bans

If Denton can do it

A Texas hamlet shaken by its first recorded earthquake last year and hundreds since then is among communities now taking steps to challenge the oil and gas industry’s traditional supremacy over the right to frack.

Reno Mayor Lyndamyrth Stokes said spooked residents started calling last November: “I heard a boom, then crack! The whole house shook. What was that?” one caller asked. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that Reno, a community about 50 miles west of Dallas, had its first earthquake.

Seismologists have looked into whether the tremors are being caused by disposal wells on the outskirts of Reno, where millions of gallons of water produced by hydraulic fracturing are injected every day. Reno took the first step toward what Stokes believes will be an outright ban by passing a law in April limiting disposal well activity to operators who can prove the injections won’t cause earthquakes.

Reno and other cities are taking their lead from Denton, a university town north of Dallas where the state’s first ban on fracking within city limits takes effect Tuesday. The Denton ban has become a “proxy for this big war between people who want to stop fracking and people who want to see it happen,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

It also has become a referendum on Texas cities’ rights to halt drilling.

[…]

Denton’s city council has pledged to defend its ban, and other cities have taken note.

“Regulation doesn’t work very well in the state of Texas because the Railroad Commission doesn’t work on the public’s behalf,” said Dan Dowdey, an anti-fracking advocate in Alpine, a college town a few hours from two major shale formations, the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford. Dowdey and others are calling for Alpine’s city commission to ban fracking — even though the closest drilling is more than 100 miles away.

“We’re familiar with what the oil and gas industry can do to an area, and it’s not real pretty and it smells bad,” Dowdey added.

Residents of Presidio, a border town southwest of Alpine, want municipal leaders to protect their water source from being tainted by exploratory fracking wells in Mexico, said Pat Simms, who sits on a Presidio County water conservation board.

See here for some background. The Legislature will of course seek to pass a law that would forbid cities from adopting such bans, and the ongoing lawsuits might make that moot anyway. But maybe they won’t! Who knows? Point is, the desire to do this isn’t going to go away, and as long as that exists there will be a way. BOR and Texas Vox have more.

The Texas Stadium geological survey

When Texas Stadium went boom, in addition to providing space for transit-oriented development, the explosion itself provided the opportunity to do a seismological study of the area.

Dr. Jay Pulliam is a professor of geophysics at Baylor University and one of the people spearheading the study. He said knowing more about the crust and mantle below the Dallas-Fort Worth area can shed light about how the planet’s continents were formed.

That’s because North Texas sits atop the dormant Balcones Fault zone. It’s a spot where continents once collided and pulled apart, eventually forming the Earth’s land mass as we know it today.

“It’s a really interesting story because it’s the site of one of these major plate tectonic occurrences,” Pulliam said.

Yet a good subsurface look at the zone has been difficult. The makeup of matter beneath the ground typically requires two things – energy sources like earthquakes and seismographs to record the waves they create. Texas has never had much of either.

Sounds like more data is needed. I’ll leave it up to the good folks of North Texas to decide which other stadia might be used for these purposes.