Few answers on why earthquakes are shaking Kansas

04/16/2014 9:17 PM

07/04/2014 6:50 AM

More questions than answers came out of a meeting conducted Wednesday by a governor-appointed task force charged with responding to the possibility that man-made activity is causing earthquakes.

That’s understandable because it’s hard to come up with a plan when scientists don’t agree on what is causing the recent rash of earthquakes reported in south-central Kansas.

“Don’t think we’re walking out of here with a finished product,” Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey, told a group of about 85 stakeholders who came to the meeting at Newman University.

Buchanan leads the three-person committee that also includes Kim Christiansen, executive director of the Kansas Corporation Commission, and Mike Tate, chief of the Bureau of Water for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The state has seen 56 earthquakes over the past seven months, with most in south-central Kansas.

And although it’s hard to know how that stacks up to past years because of inconsistency in the number of seismic monitoring stations in Kansas, most observers seem to agree the state is seeing far more than is normal.

At the same time, the oil and gas industry has seen a steady increase in production since 2004, particularly over the past year in south-central Kansas.

Part of that work includes injecting salt water – after it’s separated from the oil – into disposal wells. Nearly 7.5 barrels of water is collected for every single barrel of oil, and the rate is higher for gas.

There has been speculation that injecting that much salt water creates pressure on faults and triggers earthquakes – or induced seismic activity.

Not necessarily, scientists say.

“There is no silver bullet to induced seismicity,” Hal Macartney,a geoscience adviser for the petroleum industry, told the group. “Earthquakes are unpredictable.”

What’s causing the earthquakes has become a controversial topic.

“When you get an unusual event and pair that with how little we know about what’s going on in the subsurface,” Buchanan said, “people start to point fingers in all sorts of directions.”

The oil and gas industry often is the target.

The industry employs 67,000 in the state and provides $5 billion in wages to employees and producers, said Ed Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association.

Supporters of an industry that has such a high economic impact are nervous about the prospect of additional regulations.

While the task force has met several times since Gov. Sam Brownback appointed it in February, the group billed this one as its first public meeting.

But even that label is fuzzy because attendance was by invitation only. On the other hand, it appeared from the turnout that anyone who requested an invitation was invited.

Reporters also were allowed to attend.

Natural or man-made

The all-day meeting included information provided by the committee members and scientists. Most who attended were stakeholders – scientists, representatives of the oil and gas industry, legislators and a few environmentalists and homeowners.

About half stayed for the afternoon session to make suggestions.

“Know what’s causing this before we have a plan.”

“Get more monitors.”

“No knee-jerk reaction.”

“Deal with it on a case-by-case basis.”

“Keep the public informed.”

After the task force sorts through comments and information, it is expected to present recommendations to Brownback sometime this summer.

“No question we’ll be trying to figure out what’s going on,” Buchanan said during a break in presentations. “When the governor first called me in on this in October, his first question was, ‘Are these natural or man-made?’

“That’s the question everyone has. So, yeah, we’re trying to figure it out as best we can.”

Christiansen, whose agency regulates the oil and gas industry, said, “The key is the governor wants to make sure that agencies and localities are ready to respond to ensure there aren’t any man-made activities that are contributing to earthquakes.”

Geologists recently concluded that a quake last month in northeast Ohio was caused by hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking. It uses a mixture of sand, water and chemicals under high pressure to release oil or gas from rock.

“In Kansas, there’s no evidence that the earthquakes are being caused by fracking,” Buchanan said. “For what the committee is doing, we’ve haven’t had much of a conversation about fracking as a potential for what we’re talking about.”

The effect of disposal wells has been a topic, he added.

Among Wednesday’s speakers were two seismologists with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, the epicenter of the quake explosion. The state saw a record 2,000 quakes in 2013 and it has already surpassed that number this year.

Disposal wells have been around for decades. But Austin Holland, one of those seismologists, said that’s not a very long time in geological terms to build up data.

If observers think quake activity is linked to a disposal well, one possibility for mitigating the situation is to reduce for a period of time the amount of salt water injected into the well.

“We’re not going to stand here and say, ‘We know what’s happened,”’ Buchanan said. “But you can get a better sense of where evidence leads.

“And, if you’re concerned enough about the risks, you can begin to take new mitigation activities.”

More monitors

One of the issues in Kansas is lack of data. The state has a 25-year gap with very few seismic monitors. While the state had 15 monitors provided by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers through 1989 to check on seismic activity, Kansas has had only two since then.

Both of those are provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, but the one near Manhattan isn’t working very well, said Rick Miller, a senior scientist in the exploration services section at the state’s geological survey.

The state has relied on Oklahoma’s 30 monitors for reports of seismic activity in Kansas. Monitors, however, cannot detect whether an earthquake is man-made or natural, scientists say.

Proposed legislation would see the state purchase six monitors and place them to enhance coverage. The cost would be $300,000 for the first year, and about $3,000 yearly after that, Miller said.

Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, said the bill is in the Appropriations Committee and will be considered when the wrap-up session starts April 30.

Right now, Kansas can pinpoint the epicenter of a quake only within a six-mile area.

The state also doesn’t have a comprehensive map of its faults in the subsurface’s basement – the bottom layer of solid rock.

Mike Vess of Wichita-based Vess Oil, the state’s fifth largest oil producer, said he hopes sound information comes from the committee’s work.

“Knowledge from a producer’s perspective is a good thing,” he said. “When you have a lack of knowledge, that’s when we have problems.

“Scientifically, it’s going to be a challenge to get the answers to the cause. My first concern is simply that we respond to viable issues.”

He cited surface damage. There hasn’t been much evidence of that in Kansas, scientists say.

Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater, said after the meeting: “Until we get more information and data, coming up with an action plan is going to be really kind of hard.

“We just need to be careful we don’t have a knee-jerk reaction.”

Arkansas didn’t have a plan a few years ago when increased earthquakes hit that state. In response, the state stopped allowing salt water to be injected into disposal wells in a 1,500-square-mile area.

To get rid of the salt water, producers use trucks to haul it to Oklahoma disposal wells.

“That,” said Buchanan, “isn’t a good plan. We can do better.”

The committee will meet again May 27. It will also take public comment through May 16 as part of developing its draft recommendation.

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