The 84th Texas Legislature passed, and the Governor signed, a bill allocating $4.47 million for theTexNet Seismic Monitoring Program. The Program will be conducted by the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, the State Geological Survey of Texas housed at the University of Texas at Austin.
TexNet has two goals: 1) monitor and catalog seismic activity with magnitudes 2.0 or greater, and 2) improve the ability to rapidly investigate earthquake activity across the State. Of particular importance will be earthquakes larger than magnitude 3.0 in or near urban areas or where they are more likely to be induced by human activity such as underground wastewater injection. The TexNet Program was instigated because of seismic activity believed to be caused by wastewater injection from oil and gas activities.
While I often cringe at the prospect of government-funded research, this may be one of those rare circumstances where limited government involvement is appropriate. Human-induced earthquakes have the potential to cause property damage (though historically they do not appear to have caused injury or death). Human-induced earthquakes are also a trespass when they interfere with one's right to the quiet enjoyment of one’s property.
Determining exactly how human activities interact with subsurface geologic formations is complicated, typically requiring multi-disciplinary studies and often highly-inferential analyses. Establishing accurate cause-and-effect relationships between a particular human activity and particular seismic events is fraught with uncertainty. This means that assigning blame for any particular human activity will be at best, problematic.
But given both the property rights and public safety ramifications of human-induced earthquakes, gathering data that can potentially be used to determine the probable cause and source of seismic activity is certainly the correct first step in determining how government and society should cope when earthquakes do occur. Given public distrust of both oil and gas interests and the Texas Railroad Commission, it is appropriate that this effort be spearheaded by the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, a highly respected research-oriented institution whose work is regularly reviewed by peers both within and without the oil and gas industry.
In addition to providing funding for earthquake detection, the appropriated funds will also be used to fund multidisciplinary research into seismic activity that will hopefully shed light on what geologic conditions are most likely to trigger human-induced earthquakes. Hopefully the data gathered will spur other studies that can help shed light on the problem.
Until such research does get to the bottom of this issue, it will be prudent for the Texas Railroad Commission to be more proactive than it has been in the past in dealing with those situations where there is a reasonably certain connection between seismic activity and underground wastewater disposal operations. We can only hope that increased public data will provide the impetus for a more proactive stance by the Commission.