Shaken and stirred: How Azle in Texas decided enough was enough with fracking

After enduring more than 30 earthquakes, a small town in Texas has decided that it is time something was done about fracking

Azle, Texas

The point of the 13 January town hall meeting was to organise 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 that attendees may have had about the purpose of the gathering.

“We were never activists,” says Sharon Wilson, a North Texas resident and organiser for the state chapter of Earthworks, a nationwide, non-profit organisation. “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 200 or so people who gathered for the meeting, held in the town’s community centre 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 at 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 is represented in the Texas Legislature by Republicans. If people are starting to rumble about the malfeasance of big business, it is because the ground beneath their feet has, of late, been rumbling, too. The area has experienced more than 30 earthquakes since November, including one on the morning of the meeting in question.

None of the earthquakes has 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 were woken late at night by the commotion and were worried about their safety and their property values. Students at the local schools have practised a duck-and-cover drill, in case a bigger quake comes along. And, though the earthquakes were the main issue discussed at the town hall, some Azle-ites worried that the tremors could be a harbinger of even worse things to come, such as contamination of the groundwater supply. “How are we gonna clean that up?” shouts a woman in the crowd.

Read more in this series:
Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
Two planes, a Rolls-Royce and an Aston Martin – meet fracking millionaires of Kenedy, Texas  

The cause of this upheaval – both literal and figurative – can be inferred. All the earthquakes have 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 800 people had attended an earlier town hall meeting the previous week, 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 afterwards that the state would hire a seismographer to look into the issue.

The organisers at the second town hall meeting celebrated this development. “You folks scared the hell out of ’em,” the crowd is told by Gary Hogan, the president of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance. A murmur of agreement rises from the room.

With that said, Hogan warns those assembled not to feel too reassured because the Railroad Commission still asserts that there is not a definitive scientific link between hydraulic fracturing or injection wells, and earthquakes – which, he says, is 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 is retrieved from the drilling site, it is 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 Cabot Oil and Gas natural gas drill is viewed at a hydraulic fracturing site, here in Springville, Pennsylvania A Cabot Oil and Gas natural gas drill is viewed at a hydraulic fracturing site, here in Springville, Pennsylvania (Getty Images)
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 adds, doesn’t make sense. That’s not how science works. Scientific theories are intrinsically probabilistic, he explains. If the Railroad Commission is holding out for absolute certainty, the people of Azle will be waiting forever. Hogan has a better idea: “You shut it down,” he says. “If the earthquakes stop, I think you got your scientific evidence.”

The crowd breaks into applause and, at the end of the meeting, a number of them take the microphone and offer their own remarks. Among them is Gale Wood, who introduces himself as a retired scientist. “What were they thinking, putting injection wells in a heavily populated area like this?” he says. “It’s unbelievable!” It would make more sense, he argues, for the companies to haul their wastewater to injection wells in more remote, less developed parts of the state.

Afterwards, his wife, Barbara, tells me that Gale began his career at Nasa, where he worked on the Apollo moon missions. Her husband actually is a rocket scientist. “I didn’t want them to think I was a know-it-all,” he says by way of explanation.

This meeting, as with the previous one, seems to have an effect. A few days later, state representative Jim Keffer, the chair of the House Energy Resources Committee, names four representatives to serve on a new subcommittee focused on seismic activity. And on 21 January, a busload of people from Azle head to Austin to attend the Railroad Commission’s bi-weekly open meeting, where dozens testify about their concerns and scold 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,” says one witness, an 11-year-old boy named Robert. “And also I learnt 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. The state has been fairly sanguine about oil and gas companies coming to the neighbourhood 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 13 January town hall meeting. The oil and gas companies use the wells, she explained as she went through some PowerPoint slides, because the alternatives are not 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 is not arguing for an end to the industry; rather, she is calling for a moratorium for now on risky injections.

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. They are the ones charged with regulating oil and gas production in Texas, and, as several townspeople observe, all three have taken plenty of campaign contributions from the industry.

Oil and gas executives, of course, have usually supported the commissioners. The cosiness between the regulators and the industry, and the confidence that people often have in the companies, is a recipe for cronyism and complacency.

From another perspective, though, that dynamic is one reason to believe that the people of Azle and their neighbours 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.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Texas Monthly. Reprinted with permission

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Advisor - Opportunities Available Nationwide

£15000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to ...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Special Needs Support Worker

£12 - £14 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are looking for someone to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

£15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence