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Texas USA

What’s Shakin’

North Texans, scientists are trying to get to the bottom of earthquakes

In Cleburne, folks like to call each other and say, “What are y’all doing?” They’ve been doing this since the Pleistocene Epoch—well at least since the beginning of the Telephone Epoch. But in the tremulous summer of ’09, they were more likely to say: “Did you feel anything?” 

In most cases, this question stems from the at least eight earthquakes that have occurred since June 2 in or near Cleburne, a city of about 30,000 that lies 25 miles south of Fort Worth. Experts are mystified by these quakes and by a series of other small ones that rattled the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2008—on Halloween and November 1—and on May 16 of this year, preceding the ones in Cleburne.

City officials say that as far as they know, Cleburne never experienced an earthquake before exploration companies started drilling within the Barnett Shale. There are now approximately 200 natural gas wells within city limits. Some here believe the events are related. But other Cleburnites, such as those receiving gas royalties, think the quakes are just coincidental.  

There may be a natural explanation for the quakes. So Cleburne and area leaders are working with Southern Methodist University scientists who have set up seismographs near the recent activity to get to the bottom of all this, so to speak.

No damage or visible evidence occurred during any of the quakes, just some minor blips on the Richter scale and a flurry of 911 calls reporting that the ground “shook,” “rumbled,” went “boom,” rattled windows or even whole houses. One woman told the operator, “The couch dropped and the hair rose on my arms.”

Patty Russell, who lives west of town near Pat Cleburne Lake, felt them all. She enumerates them in rapid order: “The first one, 2.8, the second, 2.6, third, 2.3, fourth 2.1, fifth, 2.4, and sixth, 2.2.” She’s also precise in her description: “They were like the dynamiting maneuvers at Fort Bragg that you could hear and feel at your house.” (Her husband, Robert, trained at the North Carolina base with the 82nd Airborne Division before the 1991 Gulf War.) Their daughter Kara Grisham lives nearby and also felt all of them. She said her cat acted weird and its fur stood up. 

But folks not living in the shaky sections missed the excitement and the spotlight when all the news media swarmed through town, aiming cameras only at those with horripilating tales to tell. Chaf-In, a popular diner on West Henderson Street since the 1940s, was in the “epicenter,” says owner Dan Roberts. He said he and his waitstaff were interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, ABC, CBS, NBC and a lot of smaller outlets. During the excitement he had a sign that said, “Six hours and no new quakes. Just a few old quacks.”

Despite youth’s obvious importance and modern society’s emphasis on it, in nature it is age that brings the most bounty. The 350-million-year-old, 5,000-square-mile layer of gas-filled shale a mile below the North Texas surface now provides, according to some in the industry, up to 7 percent of the country’s gas needs. Some experts say it could hold as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of gas resources. So far, it is estimated it has added about $500 million in revenues to the Texas treasury and about $230 million to those of local governments. Experts predict it could generate close to 110,000 jobs by 2015.

In recent years, new technology has helped free the gas from the dense rock. In a relatively new technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracing,” water and sand are pumped at high pressure into the shale, creating cracks in its formation. The sand holds the cracks, or fissures, open so the gas can escape and be extracted.

Such information is becoming part of the conversations around town these days, such as at the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society, a block from the Johnson County courthouse. Here, I met Roberts, who was palavering with agent Louis Homesley and Louis’ daughter Kendall, 25, who teaches in the nearby Grandview Independent School District and coaches basketball. 

The venerable Woodmen building is almost a century old. I’m thankful that the forces of change, including earthquakes, have spared it. My uncle, Wayne Conner, took me up its long flight of stairs when I was 6 years old and bought me a life insurance policy, which is still in effect. Louis is venerable, too, graduating five years ahead of me at Cleburne High School. His Uncle L.C. Homesley and my Uncle Wayne fought in World War II. My uncle came home; his didn’t. I was in the National Guard with his brother, Pete. In the lives of old fissures like us there are many tributaries.

While the drilling’s role in the earthquakes is uncertain, there’s no doubt that it has elevated Cleburne economically. The town’s $30 million in royalties since 2002, although not included in its annual operating budget, has helped beautify the downtown area and, along with the “mailbox money” going out in royalties to local landowners, has greatly stimulated business.

Until recently, at least. The drop in gas prices last year reduced the mailbox munificence by half. I learned this when I stopped at Cleburne’s Layland Museum. Julie Baker, the director, also told me she noticed little predictors before the reduction registered in the town’s consciousness. The number of leasing scouts coming into the museum to search the land titles for heirs began to dwindle. Also, the clerk at the food trailer where she stops told her that burrito sales had dropped off. I myself noted the decline in the number of gas company water trucks on U.S. Highway 67.

Another indicator of the diminished gas flow was the increased activity at the Eastside Pawn Shop on East Henderson Street. Melissa Hasty, who has worked there 10 years, said, “When the gas price was up they bought lots of new stuff. When it went down, the stuff ended up with us.” 

Not all felt the quakes, but the economy touches everybody.

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To see more works from Tom Dodge, a Midlothian-based writer, go to www.tomdodgebooks.com.