Reporting Texas

Pipelines that follow highway rights-of-way have popped up in Shelby County over the past five years as the oil and gas industry has boomed.

By Megan Strickland
For Reporting Texas and the Austin American-Statesman

Sandra Beard is tired of earthquakes in her neighborhood. She wonders whether they’re naturally caused, or linked to fracking wells in her area.

“Every night you go to bed, and you wonder, ‘Oh, God, is it going to happen again?’” Beard said. “When it does, you wake up, and stuff is crashing all around you.”

Beard, a 62-year-old retiree, lives in Timpson, an East Texas town of 1,100 people in Shelby County. The area has experienced six earthquakes bigger than 2.1 on the Richter scale since May 2012. The biggest registered 4.8, enough to move things around and cause slight damage.

Shelby County sits astride the western end of the Haynesville-Bossier Shale, which stretches from East Texas across Louisiana to Mississippi and Alabama. As fracking – drilling for gas using hydraulic fracturing – has grown in the Haynesville, earthquakes have followed, as they did in the state’s other major fracking plays – the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and the Barnett Shale in North Central Texas.

The quakes, residents and scientists suspect, aren’t caused by the drilling itself. Every fracked well uses between 4 million and 6 million gallons of water, much of which returns to the surface. The unusable saltwater is pumped into deep “disposal wells,” which are the main suspects as causes of earthquakes.

There are 27 disposal wells in Shelby County, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, with two inside the Timpson city limits.

Residents and county leaders want the quakes to stop, but they don’t want to slow down the Haynesville boom that is bringing prosperity to the area.

“We don’t want to cut our nose off our faces,” Timpson Mayor Debra Smith said. “We are a very oil- and gas-rich community and county. I’m not figuring anybody’s trying to shut the oil and gas industry down. They may want to make sure every thing’s being done to make the process as safe as possible, but they aren’t thinking about running them out of town.”

Cliff Frolich, associate director for the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, said the disposal wells might be destabilizing the Mt. Enterprise Fault, which runs underneath Timpson.

“It’s not an issue of if fracking causes earthquakes; it’s a question of if the disposal causes earthquakes,” Frolich said. “If that’s the case, you could still produce the gas. You just have to dispose of the stuff somewhere else.”

His research established a link between saltwater disposal wells and earthquakes in the Dallas area. Other researchers have linked saltwater disposal wells to earthquakes in Ohio and Arkansas. Frolich said it could be months before he and researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University conclude what’s causing the Shelby County quakes.

The Shelby County Freshwater Supply District’s board isn’t waiting. In February it drafted a petition to state Rep. Chris Paddie, a Republican from Carthage, asking for help in suspending operation of the disposal wells. The wells are regulated by the Railroad Commission, so there is little Paddie could do directly to stop the pumping. Still, the board’s vote highlights the growing tension between those who are sick of the quakes and others who don’t want to offend the energy industry.

A spokeswoman for Paddie said he had received phone calls and written comments about the earthquakes, but hadn’t introduced legislation to deal with the Shelby County wells.

Ramona Nye, a Railroad Commission spokeswoman, said in a statement that commission regulations would shut saltwater disposal wells down if they contaminate groundwater or fail to contain the fluid to permitted areas. She said the commission has received no evidence that Timpson earthquakes are related to disposal.

“Please keep in mind that some reported earthquake epicenters in Texas have not been near saltwater disposal or injection facilities,” Nye said. “Our staff also are closely following various studies that are being conducted to determine possible man-made causes of recent seismic events.”

Shelby County Judge Rick Campbell said the energy industry has transformed the local economy over the past five years, and that attempts to regulate disposal wells locally might have serious consequences.

“Five years ago, we had two old hotels in Shelby County. Now we have nine brand new ones, there’s 10 RV parks, there’s probably 15 service departments,” Campbell said. “Those are companies are service departments that are brand new companies servicing the oil and gas industry.”

Campbell said tax income from the industry has improved the county’s infrastructure.

“What the oil industry has brought to Shelby County is the rebuilding of the roads,” Campbell said. “We built 70 miles of black-top sand and oil sand roads. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have any blacktop roads, and once gas gets back above $4.50 per thousand [cubic feet], the oil and gas industry will be back with a vengeance, and Shelby County will be able to pave its roads in gold.”

Area disposal well operators in Shelby County didn’t respond to repeated attempts for comment on the area quakes.

Marc McCord, director of FracDallas, an anti-drilling citizen group, said profits can drive community leaders to overlook the side effects of saltwater disposal, such as earthquakes. He said two saltwater disposal wells linked by Frolich to earthquakes were shut down after determining they were a threat to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Limiting disposal wells in Shelby County won’t be easy, he said.

“They’re going to have to come armed with facts and learn a lot,” McCord said. “The oil and gas lobby is incredibly strong.”

Meanwhile, the county’s 27 wells are authorized to receive between 42,000 and 1.26 million gallons of fracking saltwater apiece each day. The wells are owned by companies ranging from energy giant Devon Energy Corp. to locally owned groups like Katy Saltwater Disposal Co.

Timpson resident Carol Phillips, 55, and her husband John Phillips, 56, own a weekend home in the town and think it is time to take precautions, whatever the status of scientific studies. Carole Phillips said she’s worried about more than her claw-foot bathtub, which walked itself out of her bathroom into the hallway during the last quake.

“If we don’t make some noise, what’s going to stop them from coming and drilling more disposal wells before we know how this affects all of that and the earthquakes?” she asked.

Then there’s Lake Timpson, a 223-acre reservoir just outside of town.

“You can see the little lake and dam, right in the middle of the quakes,” Timpson resident John Phillips said. “If a big one comes and breaks the dam, what’s going to happen?”


Reporting Texas is a digital media initiative of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. It showcases the reporting of undergraduate and graduate students and makes it available to other news outlets.

Image credit: Megan Strickland, Reporting Texas