DAVID GREENE, host:
Now let's go to North Texas, where tornadoes are the natural disaster that usually worry residents the most. Well, that's not the case in the small of Cleburne, just south of Fort Worth. They've had six earthquakes there, this month alone. Cleburne happens to sit on a huge recently discovered natural gas deposit. Lots of drilling is going on there.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports that some people wonder if those quakes are related to that drilling.
WADE GOODWYN: Here atop this little slice of Southwest paradise called the Barnett Shale, a four-story drilling rig can pop up in as little as a couple of days. Two thousand natural gas wells have been drilled here, all in the last eight years.
While most of rural America slowly dies on the vine, Cleburne is building civic center additions and opening championship municipal golf courses across the street from lakefront McMansions.
Mr. CHARLIE HODGES (Cleburne Public Relations): This is now a pure championship 18-hole links course built in part with money that the city has gotten in royalties from natural gas and drilling on city ground.
GOODWYN: Charlie Hodges handles Cleburne's public relations, which usually isn't a backbreaking assignment. Nobody thought much about it when a small tremor shook the town in early June - 2.8 magnitude, first in town history. But then a couple of days later, another earthquake. Then another earthquake. Then another.
Mr. HODGES: See over the little bridge off to our left? Okay, that's a bridge that goes over the spillway to our earthen dam. We have earthquakes out in here. What is the damage to that dam? Are those earthquakes causing damage to those natural gas lines? We had a gas leak in a house last year, blew up the house.
GOODWYN: Hodges says nobody is really scared, but�
Mr. HODGES: In an area that has not seen an earthquake in the 150 years this city has been around, and then we have five in seven days.
Mr. CHESTER NOLEN (City Manager, Cleburne): I felt the second earthquake. I was watching the basketball game and felt the earth shook, thought it was my wife closing the garage door.
GOODWYN: Chester Nolen is the Cleburne city manager. The city itself is raking in millions of dollars in natural gas royalties - more than $9 million last year alone. And that goes a long way in a town of 30,000. And hundreds of other property owners are getting anywhere from $300 to $400 to tens of thousands of dollars in the mail each month.
Mr. NOLEN: You know, everybody has an opinion on it and it largely depends on whether or not you have mailbox money.
GOODWYN: In order to have felt any of the Cleburne quakes, you had to be in the right place at the right time.
Ms. JENA WILLIAMS (Mall Manager): I've talked to a few customers that said they felt it slightly, but most have not felt it.
GOODWYN: Jena Williams runs the Red Horse Antique Mall. Williams wants the city to try to find out if the tremors are a fluke of nature or manmade.
Ms. WILLIAMS: If it's the drilling and they continue to drill, what's going to be the consequences?
GOODWYN: Natural gas recovery in the Barnett Shale involves drilling down several thousand feet and then drilling sideways thousands of feet more. Liquid is then pumped down the wells at very high pressure, which fractures the strata, releasing the pockets of natural gas. Could this be causing the little quakes? And even if true, with 2,000 wells, ironclad contracts with hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into the local economy, what would you do about it. Matt Smith, reporter for the Cleburne Times Review, has been covering the story.
Mr. MATT SMITH (Cleburne Times Review): I think a lot of people are thinking that it's an overblown - that these are just minor events. I don't think anyone's overly concerned that I've talked to.
GOODWYN: Smith says even though there's not a scintilla of evidence about whether the quakes are natural or manmade, many in Cleburne have already made up their minds.
Mr. SMITH: People that lean right might say that this is just natural. People that lean left might say this is the drilling.
GOODWYN: Who need science when we have our politics to guide us? Well, actually the city leaders in Cleburne do. They've asked SMU seismologist Brian Stump to investigate. He's installing four seismometers around town which will gather more detailed data. He's avoiding the politics.
Professor BRIAN STUMP (Southern Methodist University): We're really focusing in our case on the science issues, and then we'll let people judge for themselves.
GOODWYN: Could injection of fluids in the crust be responsible? Perhaps it's one of the fault lines that run from Austin to Oklahoma three miles down. The driller, Chesapeake Energy, says they're cooperating with Professor Stump. One thing is certain: it's 102 degrees in the shade this week in the Lone Star State, and all that natural gas is being burned up as fast as it's brought up -powering air conditioning condensers as far as the eye can see.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas