Shaken and Stirred
How the earthquakes in the Barnett Shale turned some small-town folks into environmentalists.
The point of the January 13 town hall meeting was to organize the locals. And since the locale was a smallish town in Texas—Azle, population roughly 11,000, just far enough from Fort Worth that it doesn’t quite feel like a suburb—that meant the first task, for the handful of fracking critics who led the meeting, was to gently address any reservations attendees may have had about the purpose of the gathering. “We were never activists,” said Sharon Wilson, a North Texas resident and organizer for the state chapter of Earthworks, a nationwide nonprofit. “We were not environmentalists. We were just people living our lives, and then the oil and gas industry moved in around us.”
Wilson, of course, is an environmental activist—but only as of a few years ago, when gas production skyrocketed in the Barnett Shale. Still, that gave her considerably more experience than most of the two hundred or so people who had gathered for the meeting, held in the town’s community center on Main Street. There was an antiques shop open in the foyer as they arrived, and a few reminders that until recently the space had also served as a church on weekends—a sign commanding “Thou shalt not put paper towels or other items in the toilets,” and so on. Azle is a conservative place; it’s represented in the Texas Legislature by Republican senators Jane Nelson and Craig Estes and Republican representatives Phil King and Charlie Geren. If people were starting to rumble about the malfeasance of big business, it was because the ground beneath their feet had, of late, been rumbling too. The area had experienced more than thirty earthquakes since November, including one on the morning of the meeting in question.
None of the earthquakes had been devastating. Most registered between a 2.0 and a 3.0 on the Richter scale. Earthquakes of that magnitude can be felt, though, and their impact can be documented. Residents had been woken late at night by the commotion and were worried about their safety and their property values. Students at the local schools took part in a duck-and-cover drill, in case a bigger quake came along. And though the earthquakes were the main issue discussed at the town hall, some Azlelites worried that the tremors could be a harbinger of even worse things to come, like contamination of the groundwater supply. “How are we gonna clean that up?” shouted a woman in the crowd.
The cause of this upheaval—both literal and figurative—could be inferred. All the earthquakes had happened after oil and gas companies began fracking and disposing of their fracking fluid in injection wells. As many attendees observed, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that there might be a connection.
Nearly eight hundred people had attended an earlier town hall meeting, on January 2, held by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry. The agency was apparently not expecting that level of interest and announced afterward that the state would hire a seismographer to look into the issue. The organizers at the second town hall celebrated this development. “You folks scared the hell out of ’em,” the crowd was told by Gary Hogan, the president of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance. A murmur of agreement rose from the room.
With that said, Hogan warned the assembled not to feel too reassured, because the Railroad Commission still asserted that there wasn’t a definitive scientific link between hydraulic fracturing or injection wells and earthquakes—which, he said, was a bunch of bull. Fracking uses high-pressure blasts of fluid to break up underground shale formations, freeing trapped natural gas and oil. The fracking fluid is mostly water, but it includes a variety of additives and chemicals; when it’s retrieved from the drilling site, it’s often too dirty to be sent back into the groundwater supply. So every month companies in Texas dump millions of gallons of it into sealed injection wells deep under the ground. A number of academics have already documented a connection between such wells and seismic activity. Authorities have stopped injections at several sites, including near the Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, and sure enough the earthquakes there have stopped.
The idea of definitive proof, Hogan added, doesn’t make sense. That’s not how science works. Scientific theories are intrinsically probabilistic, he explained. If the Railroad Commission was holding out for absolute certainty, the people of Azle would be waiting forever. Hogan had a better idea: “You shut it down,” he said. “If the earthquakes stop, I think you got your scientific evidence.”
The crowd broke into applause, and at the end of the meeting, a number of them took the mike and offered their own remarks. Among them was Gale Wood, who introduced himself as a retired scientist. “What were they thinking, putting injection wells in a heavily populated area like this?” he said. “It’s unbelievable!” It would make more sense, he argued, for the companies to haul their wastewater to injection wells in more remote, less developed parts of the state. Afterward his wife, Barbara, told me that Gale had begun his career at NASA, where he worked on the Apollo moon missions. Her husband actually was a rocket scientist. “I didn’t want them to think I was a know-it-all,” he explained.
This meeting, like the previous one, seemed to have an effect. A few days later state representative Jim Keffer, the chair of the House Energy Resources Committee, named four representatives to serve on a new subcommittee focused on seismic activity. And on January 21 a busload of people from Azle went to Austin to attend the Railroad Commission’s biweekly open meeting, where dozens testified about their concerns and scolded the commissioners for their inertia. “If you say we should conserve water, I don’t get why you inject millions of gallons of water a year into the ground at huge pressures,” said one witness, an eleven-year-old boy named Robert. “And also I learned that it’s poisoned water. That is very concerning to me.”
It’s unlikely, of course, that Texas will turn against fracking as a whole. We have been fairly sanguine about oil and gas companies’ coming to the neighborhood since 1901, when the first gusher was tapped at Spindletop and it quickly became clear that energy booms create spillover business for landowners and bartenders and innkeepers. The sheer enormity of this boom’s economic bounty in particular is too commanding to be cast aside.
Even many of fracking’s critics understand this. “You cannot have a shale gas and oil boom without fracking,” Wilson had said at the January 13 town hall meeting. The oil and gas companies use the wells, she explained as she went through some PowerPoint slides, because the alternatives aren’t ideal. Recycling much of the fracking fluid is possible but expensive. Another option is storing the waste in above-ground impoundment pits. But then—she showed a picture—you have to worry about having a huge above-ground pool of toxic wastewater that might leak or spill. Like Wood, Wilson wasn’t arguing for an end to the industry; rather, she was calling for a moratorium on risky injections for now.
Most of Azle’s newly minted activists have reserved their harshest criticism not for the industry but for the politicians who are supposed to regulate and oversee the industry—in particular, the three officials who serve on the Texas Railroad Commission: Christi Craddick, David Porter, and Barry Smitherman. They’re the ones charged with regulating oil and gas production in Texas, and, as several townspeople observed, all three have taken plenty of campaign contributions from the industry.
Oil and gas executives, of course, have usually been supportive of the commissioners. The coziness between the regulators and the industry, and the confidence that people often have in the companies—that’s a recipe for cronyism and complacency. From another perspective, though, that dynamic is one reason to believe that the people of Azle and their neighbors may have an impact. If solidly Republican, small-town Texans are upset about the oil and gas industry, it’s a safe bet that something has actually gone wrong.
“No disrespect, but this isn’t rocket science,” said Lynda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, at the January 21 meeting. “For once, make people more important than industry.”