During a hearing this week, one of the scientists who authored a study released last month that found natural causes were not responsible for an increase in earthquakes, countered the conclusions by environmentalists that hydraulic fracturing was directly linked to the cause.
"The injection of fluids can and do indeed trigger earthquakes," said Matthew Hornbach, Southern Methodist University associate professor of geophysics, before the Texas state House Energy Resources Committee, reports the San Angelo State Times.
He added that only a tiny fraction of injection wells are causing earthquakes, which have mild shakes that don't generally cause damage.
The SMU study was published last month in the journal Nature Communications
and focused on a series of earthquakes that occurred in the area around Azle, Texas, between November 2013 and January 2014. During that period, 27 magnitude 2 or greater earthquakes were detected and monitored by scientists at SMU and the U.S. Geological Survey.
"In fact, it's been driving us crazy, frankly, that people keep using it in the press," Hornbach told state lawmakers during the hearing.
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Since the release, it has been seized upon by opponents of fracking as the smoking gun in the debate about how much oil and gas drilling is contributing to a spike in seismic activity.
"There appears to be little doubt about the conclusion that the earthquakes were in fact induced," USGS seismologist Susan Hough, who wasn't part of the study team, said in an email. "There's almost an abundance of smoking guns in this case," she told The Associated Press.
USGS researcher William Ellsworth, a co-author of the SMU study, also told the AP that "the deep injection of the wastes still is the principle culprit," but that "controversial method of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, even though that may be used in the drilling, is not physically causing the shakes."
On Monday, the Texas Senate approved a ban on local bans on hydraulic fracturing that passed the state House. The bill now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature, reports CBS Houston News.
Not all officials at the state or federal level believe fracking is the primary cause of earthquakes.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has argued that banning the practice "is the wrong way to go" and simply creates more confusion for oil and gas producers.
"I would say that is the wrong way to go. I think it's going to be very difficult for industry to figure out what the rules are if different counties have different rules," said Jewell in an interview with KQED radio.
"There is a lot of misinformation about fracking," Jewell said, adding that "in many cases [people] don't understand the science behind it and I think there needs to be more science."
Hydraulic fracturing, which is known in common parlance as "fracking," is a process of gas development by which sand water and small amounts of chemicals are injected into deep oil- and gas-containing formations. That step results in the cracking of rocks and allows the trapped gas and oil to be recovered.
Some states, such as New York, are moving toward prohibitions on using hydraulic fracturing to develop gas.
"I consider the people of the State of New York as my patients. We cannot afford to make a mistake. The potential risks are too great," said acting state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker int December when announcing the state's ban, according to the New York Daily News.
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