Kansas oil drilling rules credited with limiting quakes set to expire (+video)

UPDATE: The Kansas Corporation Commission announced Friday that the state Task Force on Induced Seismicity will meet 1 p.m. Tuesday with the Harper County Commission. The task force includes representation from the KCC, the Kansas Geological Survey and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The meeting will be held at the Harper County Courthouse, 201 N. Jennings Ave., Anthony.

Oil-waste disposal regulations that seem to have tamped down earthquakes in southern Kansas are set to expire in less than two weeks, the chief of the Kansas Geological Survey said Wednesday.

But while quakes have declined in recent months, Rex Buchanan, the interim director of the geological survey, cautioned against complacency.

“In spite of the fact activity has been lower over the last few months, I don’t think there’s anybody in my world who views this problem as one that has gone away or is going away,” Buchanan said. “I think we would be pretty short-sighted if we did look at this that way. We’ve got to look at other places and we’ve got to be better prepared than we were last time.”

The Kansas Corporation Commission passed regulations in March to limit the underground disposal of saltwater that comes up with the oil pumped out of wells mainly in Harper and Sumner County.

Injecting that water back into the ground is thought to be the cause of extraordinary seismic activity that has rattled homes and nerves along the Oklahoma state line since horizontal drilling for oil took off in the area about three years ago.

The commission regulations phased down the amount of oil- and salt-tainted water being poured down into waste disposal wells in seismically active areas. Those regulations were written to expire after a six-month test period that ends Sept. 13. The commission staff is currently drafting recommendations on how to proceed after the expiration date, a spokesman said.

Buchanan spoke Tuesday at an annual seminar on geology and well technology offered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

In response to a question from the audience, Buchanan said there is little doubt that the increase in earthquakes is human induced.

This year, Kansas has had almost as many quakes as last year, 115 so far compared with 127 in 2014.

However, the bulk of this year’s quakes came early in the year, before the reduction in wastewater injection, Buchanan said. Since then, the quakes have been less frequent and smaller, he said.

None have approached the 4.9 magnitude quake in November of last year that cracked walls, emptied shelves and broke propane lines in the tiny Harper County town of Milan.

After spiking in 2014 and early 2015, the number and magnitude of quakes started declining almost as soon as the amount of wastewater being pumped underground was reduced, he said.

Buchanan said he’s not sure whether the regulations were the key factor in reducing oilfield waste disposal in seismically sensitive areas, because the reduction in waste may have been related to a dip in oil production due to falling prices.

Declines in price and production are reflected in state taxes.

In January, Kansas collected $6.4 million from its oil franchise tax. Since March, it’s averaged about $4 million a month.

However, Buchanan said he expects oilfield activity, and the resulting waste, to rebound.

“Even if some of the reduction (in wastewater disposal) may be due to somewhat lower oil prices today, oil prices will not always be lower. We know that,” he said.

Compounding the problem is that Harper and Sumner County wells produce about 16 barrels of wastewater for every barrel of oil, said Lynn Watney, senior scientific fellow with the geological survey.

And Kansas has learned from experience that the water is so salty that it can’t be responsibly disposed of above ground, Buchanan said.

“When I was a kid, we put it in evaporation pits out in central Kansas,” he said. “We called them evaporation pits. They weren’t, really. The water just went into the subsurface and contaminated the shallow groundwater and we’re still dealing with that today, particularly up in the Halstead-Burrton area.”

David Garrett, an environmental scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, said the EPA is working with the state to try to prevent water pollution from earthquakes and oil waste.

“EPA is currently not aware of any underground source of drinking water being contaminated as a result of injection-induced seismicity,” he said.

Buchanan said scientists studying human-induced earthquakes now know much more than they did. “The last year has been an interesting one.”

Part of that is better seismic monitoring. Three years ago, Kansas had only two monitoring stations in the entire state.

Now, there are 21 state and federal monitoring sites in the quake-prone areas of southern Kansas and work is underway on a statewide monitoring network, he said.

Buchanan said Kansas learned from Oklahoma’s experience as well. Oklahoma started having quake problems earlier and initially tried to deal with it by pinpointing the quakes and then trying to find one well causing the problem, he said.

“Sometimes that is the case, but a lot of times it wasn’t,” he said. “What you see in the (Kansas) Corporation Commission’s order is this more areal approach. Don’t just look at one well, look at the wells within an area and approach it that way.”

Another lesson learned is how important it is to maintain regular contact with the residents in the affected areas, Buchanan said. “This has been a difficult situation for folks down there and we understand that. I think we’ve got a better handle on it today, clearly than we did a year ago at this time.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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