On Wednesday, November 23rd, John Tintera had a brief yet informative discussion with Dr. Scott Tinker and Dr. Michael Young at the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) regarding the progress of the state’s new seismic monitoring system, known as TexNet.
The BEG is responsible for acting as the State Geological Survey of Texas and conducts research focused on the intersection of energy, the environment and the economy. In 2015, during the 84th Legislative Session, lawmakers approved legislation which charged the BEG with studying seismic events in Texas and included funding for additional seismic monitoring systems across the state.
John Tintera: Good morning, and thank you for joining us. Dr Scott Tinker is here with us today and we’re going to be talking about the seismic work that the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin has been conducting. Welcome and thank you for your time.
Dr. Tinker, the legislature has tasked the Bureau of Economic Geology with seismic monitoring and they provided some of the additional funding for taking that on. Quite a task in front of you. How’s the work coming along?
Scott Tinker: Thank you, John. I appreciate being able to visit with you guys today and I’ve got Dr. Michael Young here with me as well. Michael is the Associate Director of the Environmental Division at the Bureau, and TexNet falls under his division. We’re both happy to be here today.
The work is coming along steady. We took the approach right from the beginning that we wanted to do something that is objective and balanced scientifically, but is also very rigorous scientifically. So although it might seem like we would like to get to answers more quickly, we’re really taking the approach that this is an opportunity to do some things long term for Texas, both with the seismology and earthquakes, and even potentially beyond that with the scientific data.
With that in mind, we can describe the progress of the work, but again in the context that this is something we’re really looking at as a long term opportunity for the state.
The state provided funding for the Bureau of Economic Geology and our partners – and those include multiple departments and colleges, the University of Texas as well as SMU and Texas A&M – to purchase and then deploy seismometers in Texas. There are 22 permanent seismometers and 36 portable seismometers, so 58 total.
We went through a rigorous bidding process and ended up selecting a vendor that we thought would do the best job, and they have. All 58 seismometers and support equipment have been delivered to us. We are now in the process of deploying those statewide. We have 10 portable seismometers deployed and streaming data to our network here at the Bureau and more seismometers being added to the network each month. The first 10 are deployed in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In regards to the permanent seismometers, we have sited all 22 stations. Let me describe what sited means.
In order to put a seismometer in the ground permanently, which will be rigorous and provide good data, we go into the field and look at between 10 and 15 possible sites for each seismometer. We’re looking for the best geology, the best access, and landowners who are willing to have this facility on their land. We also measure noise and other factors, like cellular communication. This upfront work takes a lot of time. We narrow down from 10 or 15 sites to two or three sites, do 24 hour surveys of the noise in the area and try to decide which location would be best. We also have landmen working with the landowners because we’re asking landowners to dedicate this site. We don’t need a large area, maybe 10 by 10 feet with a small fence to protect the site. But it is on their land permanently, so the landowners are cautious, but we are working with them.
The landowner part has been slower than we thought it would be but we’re getting there. We now have, as of today, 10 signed agreements from landowners out of 22, and we will be drilling holes and putting seismometers in place in December and January. We hope to have between 10 to 12 permanent seismometers in place by the end of January.
JT: That’s quite an impressive effort, Dr. Tinker. What are some of the deadlines that you are aiming for?
ST: We want to have all 22 permanent seismometers in place by early summer 2017. More than half of those will be in place by the end of January 2017 and the rest by the end of May. The portable seismometers are easier to get installed because they are not part of a permanent facility, and the landowners are a little more amenable to that. As I said earlier, we have 10 portable seismometers in place already. We’ll have 16 around the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and another 15-20 installed in West Texas and other parts of the state. Those are going in fairly routinely – a few each month – to make sure we’re in areas of high interest and high activity. I imagine that we will have 30 or more portables deployed in the same time frame – February through May. The whole facility will be out there by May, potentially, less than a year since we approved the vendor contract in April of 2016.
Michael Young: We received the funding in the summer of 2015, then we had to go through the design process and the acquisition process that put the bid out in November. The contract was approved in April 2016 and we’ve been essentially in the field testing locations ever since.
ST: So that will be about a year from accepting the final bid to getting them all deployed.
And this process has included people. We’ve recruited some very talented folks, like Dr. Alexandros Savvaidis from the country of Greece, where he was helping to run the Greek seismometer network of over 100 seismometers. Also, Dr. Peter Hennings is helping to lead the research team. Professor Ellen Rathje is a civil engineer at UT who studies earthquake damage around the world and she’s helping to lead the research team as well. Those are just a few of the folks that have come into this program. So part of it is talent, part of it is equipment, and part of it is just the rigor to make sure we’re installing and operating the best system that we can.
JT: That is an excellent summary. I’d like to be able to tell our readers a little bit more about what this array be able to do once fully implemented? (13:16)
ST: The permanent array will add to the 18 seismometers that are already in Texas, which will take the number to 40. It will be able to locate events reasonably well, and by that I mean both spatially, and in depth and time, any earthquake event in Texas above ~ 2.5 magnitude. Some of those are earthquakes you wouldn’t feel on the surface. And there will be error bars. Currently, the error bars on location with the current array is plus or minus 5 to 10 miles. We’re hoping to tie that down to a few miles, and then an event occurs that we can’t explain by natural means, we may decide to deploy portable seismometers to the area to pinpoint more closely where subsequent events happen.
The goal is to be able to respond quickly, reasonably accurately and then provide information to the public to let them understand that there is a group in Texas looking at seismic events, and we’re all responding together. We’re trying to help to minimize public concern, which is legitimate. You feel an earthquake, you get worried. We want to be able to work with the regulators, city planners, councilmen, academics and the industry to be as reasonable as we can in trying to explain these events.
MY: So let me add a few quick points. Right now, with the 18 stations that are operating, if there is an event in the state, the US Geological Survey (USGS), which runs the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colorado – has a team that is looking at all earthquakes that are occurring worldwide, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They generally identify locations within 15 minutes of an earthquake, pretty much anywhere in the world. What TexNet will do is, by ‘densifying’ the network, or making it denser, greatly tighten down the error bars around where the earthquake may be located. Together, with our group and the USGS, we will have a single notification system for earthquakes in Texas, instead of us having one and USGS having one. We’re working directly with the NEIC to make sure that we’re reporting the same potential magnitude and location.
The second point that we want to make any communication more efficient with first responders, with local officials, etc., So, we’ve met already with the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). Their function here in Austin is to handle any sort of [large-scale emergency] incident across Texas, an earthquake being one of those things. We have the hotline number, we will begin reporting directly to TDEM any of the events that reach a certain threshold; we haven’t discussed what the threshold is yet, but we had a very productive meeting with them two weeks ago. We let them know about TexNet, and what they can expect from us. Our goal was to understand who we call and where the emails go when the event happens so that when the network is up and running and we have everything tested, we can very easily communicate with them.
JT: Well thought out, well done. Going a step further, can you explain the interaction between TexNet and the Center for Integrated Seismic Research (CISR)?
ST: The state funded three things with TexNet. They funded the hardware, which we’ve discussed, they funded our ability to hire people to deploy and maintain that work, and it funded research to study some of the results, the new data from TexNet. Research that was funded was very explicit in the language of the bill. It included some very important things, but it also left out some things. So we formed an industry consortium, there are now 12 member companies in the Center for Integrated Seismic Research, or CISR. That group is going to supplement the research that is being funded by the state, such as impacts on the surface, and public response. CISR is helping to leverage the state’s investment. TexNet and CISR are both important.
We have a report due to the state on December 1, by statute, and that report is in review right now. It will go to the Governor’s office and the key state legislators. It is going to lay out what we’ve done in the last year to build the network and put together some of the research, and also where we are headed. The state wants to be very clear that that report is about TexNet and not CISR; CISR is a separate thing.
My passion is making sure that we’re getting academics working with the regulators, policy makers, and industry to take on some of these big, tough problems. And we get criticized for that, it’s inevitable; some will say well you’re working with industry and the regulators, how can you be objective? The work has to speak for itself. They don’t always like what they hear from us, but that’s part of our job. That is what the combination of TexNet and CISR is trying to accomplish. Those groups are working together to really try to solve the problem.
JT: Is your funding adequate, and do you foresee the need for additional investments by all parties, including the state legislature, into TexNet?
ST: We would like to see the same level of funding for this biennium as in the last, with the exception that we are not requesting equipment. I anticipate in the biennium following this one, maybe in two or three years, we might have a few equipment needs; but this biennium, we’re going to reduce the request by the amount of the equipment. It will end up being about $3.4 million that we’re going to request for the biennium, which covers the research and the team that is out there deploying, maintaining, monitoring and serving out the TexNet data and findings. About $1.7 million a year.
And again, we’re leveraging that amount with industry investment, which with 12 companies participating ends up at about $750,000/year for CISR. We have over 30 people on the team from three universities, plus we are interacting with USGS and other states. I think it is good leverage and a good investment.
JT: Have you come to any technical conclusions yet or are you willing to speculate if there is any correlation between some of the highly-publicized seismic events occurring in Oklahoma and Texas seismicity?
ST: Well we’re trying to avoid speculating… I think most people now acknowledge that some of the seismicity in Oklahoma is related to fluid disposal, at least in part. There are differences and there are some similarities. Certainly, what we have in Texas is more geologically diverse, geographically diverse…
MY: I think without speculating, what I can say is that a combination of better data, geologic information and a truly integrated team, we’re going to be able to put together a much better integrated set of analyses and hopefully our interpretation of what those mean will be as rigorous as it can be.
JT: Final comments or closing statements?
ST: The federal government has been wondering for a while how they might play in this. As the State Geological Survey of Texas, the BEG collaborates with our sister state surveys around the country quite closely. Each year the state geologists get together for our annual meeting, and the last couple of years we’ve had a session on seismicity. We are seeking a federal investment, led by BEG in Texas, working with Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and potentially other states, so that we can develop a regional network of information and best practices so that the industry doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they go to another state … and hopefully the regulators can act and share as well.
We’ve sent a concept paper to the Department of Energy and they’re interested. So again I think Texas can lead here like we often do, but not in a way of saying “Here’s how it is going to be.” That’s not our approach. It’s more, “Here’s what we’re up to, what are you up to?” It’s creating the facilities and the tools to interact and share information.
MY: The only other thing to emphasize is the need to and our desire to work with companies and for companies to feel comfortable sharing their data with us. We can protect proprietary data and still share research results. We know there’s information out there and we would like to be able to use it to improve our analysis and interpretations.