When a series of earthquakes started last fall, the mayor of Azle, a small town west of Fort Worth, thought it was a novelty. But Alan Brundrett felt more earthquakes, stronger ones -- dozens of them within a few months. He believes injection wells operated nearby by oil and gas companies have something to do with the quakes.
Brundrett first saw chatter about an earthquake in Azle on Facebook.
“Wow,” he thought at the time. “We had an earthquake. Hey, that was kinda cool.”
But then he experienced one himself, during a pre-City Council meeting. It felt like being kicked in the chair, he says.
“But then there was another one,” Brundrett said. “When I was at my house, and we were watching a scary movie at night, sitting in the reclining chair. And it hit. And it has an audible boom that comes with it, so it sounded like a bomb went off and all my windows rattled.”
There were more earthquakes, a series of them, within months, all under a 4.0 magnitude.
“And everybody was asking us what we were going to do about it," he said.
It was like asking how to stop tornadoes, he says.
“It’s Mother Nature; what are we going to do?” Brundrett said. “Until we started doing some more digging, and checking into it, and we said, 'Hey, wait a second; this might not be a natural occurring thing.'”
Many started pointing to the natural gas drilling that’s happening in the Barnett Shale, a massive geological formation that covers about 20 North Texas counties.
Brundrett called up the Railroad Commission of Texas, the regulator of the oil and gas industry, and within a week, they set up a public meeting to look into the matter. The earthquakes were getting so much attention that Brundrett was even on MSNBC talking to host Rachel Maddow.
On her show, Maddow asked the mayor: “Is there anything that you think could be done, or should be done to prove the cause of the quakes?"
The mayor responded: "Well, I would say a coincidence, first of all, would be if we had one earthquake, not that we have 30 earthquakes in a matter of months. I mean, we definitely need to get the wells shut down.”
His comments echoed around the country.
“After that night, I got emails from all over the United States and from other countries, too,” Brundrett said. “[They said] 'We had the same thing happen that’s happening to you.'”
Brundrett was overwhelmed with correspondence and calls about earthquakes, so he began to hold low-key meetings with independent seismologists, and also oil and gas industry experts.
“It’s not that all injection wells are bad,” he said. “It’s just that you can have one in a bad location that can make this happen, so it’s simply getting a process to where that doesn’t happen in the future. ... You do research before you choose a location for an injection well to put it in.”
Seismologists say old fault lines exist under Texas, and the hope is that they’d stay inactive. But Brundrett believes the injection wells operated by oil and gas companies have something to do with the cluster of earthquakes in his city. And there’s a reason the earthquakes have stopped, he says.
“I personally think that the injection well operators have turned down something or adjusted something to make them stop,” he said. “I think they’ve changed their processes in one way or another.”
On Tuesday, the Railroad Commission released data from seven oil and gas operators with active injection wells in northeast Parker County, northwest Tarrant County and southeast Wise County. The information could help scientists better determine if there’s a link between oil and gas operators and seismic activity.
“Really, I see it as not just our problem,” Brundrett said. “It’s a state problem, and even a problem for the whole nation. And so it needs to be solved right now, so it doesn’t keep happening.”
This one of several stories in a series called "What's Behind the North Texas Quakes?"
Earthquake public forum to be held June 18 in Azle
On Wednesday, KERA and StateImpact Texas will host a free public discussion about the North Texas earthquakes at the Azle High School Auditorium starting at 7 p.m. Follow the discussion on Twitter using #TXquakes. Learn more about the forum here.