The Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, created the position of seismologist three years ago. For Velasco, a professor of geologic sciences at UTEP, this role is advisory. He’ll help the commission review permits, which is a real-world application that pleases this academic. “We can go to scientific meetings and talk to each other about the specific science,” says Velasco, “but you’re not really impacting policy. To inform policy, that’s an exciting thing to do.”
Early in his career, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Velasco studied earthquakes while working on nuclear treaty verification. He explains it as “trying to find that needle in the haystack or a covert nuclear explosion in the noise of earthquakes.”
Earthquakes will be a focus in his role at the Railroad Commission. He’ll be working with a monitoring program called TexNet, using seismometers to analyze quakes across the state. Some earthquakes are manmade, induced by the high-pressure disposal of water used in hydraulic fracturing. This has been controversial, so Velasco will deal with both fault lines in state geology and in state politics.
“I know that there’s been a lot of issue on induced seismicity,” admits Velasco, “but the state of Texas has also natural earthquakes that we all need to be aware of.” He points to the geology of his own backyard in West Texas. “El Paso is right on the base of these beautiful mountains, the Franklin Mountains. And the mountains are created by, believe it or not, faulting.”
Velasco follows Craig Pearson, the Railroad Commission’s first seismologist, who left the post on June 1.
– Reporting by Tom Michael.