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Kansas panel tightens fracking waste limits in effort to prevent earthquakes

A well head for a salterwater injection well operated by Sandridge Energy.
A well head for a salterwater injection well operated by Sandridge Energy. File photo

In its continuing effort to settle the shaky ground, a divided Kansas Corporation Commission on Tuesday expanded restrictions on underground injection of oilfield wastewater linked to the spate of earthquakes over the past four years.

The new rules put stricter limits on the volume of wastewater that can be dumped down disposal wells around the most seismically sensitive areas of Harper and Sumner counties. Tuesday’s order also expands the area where underground disposal is restricted.

Reduced injection rates are being credited with a reduction in the magnitude and frequency of human-perceptible quakes on the Kansas side of the Oklahoma border. Most of the quakes now being felt in the Wichita area are originating in Oklahoma.

We’ve taken action to see that we don’t have the seismic activity we’ve seen south of Kansas.

Pat Apple, Kansas Corporation Commission

“We’ve taken action to see that we don’t have the seismic activity we’ve seen south of Kansas,” said Commissioner Pat Apple, who joined commission Chairman Jay Emler in approving the new restrictions.

“The Commission finds increased seismic activity constitutes an immediate danger to the public health, safety, and welfare, and the requirements in this Order are narrowly tailored to address the potential harm,” the order said.

Commissioner Shari Feist Albrecht voted no and filed a dissenting opinion favoring stronger restrictions than those contained in the order. She sided with the KCC staff, which wanted to limit dumping to 12,000 barrels a day.

She noted that while the number of quakes felt by residents has dropped, there’s been an increase in smaller quakes over the past year.

She said she doesn’t think the 16,000-barrel limit “would do little to change the status quo and provide minimal data from which to draw any conclusions about the small-earthquake trend.”

The less-stringent restriction came out of talks with two oil companies that operate in the quake-sensitive areas.

Apple noted the order calls for continued monitoring of earthquakes and wastewater disposal and the disposal allowance could be further reduced if the 16,000-barrel limit proves ineffective.

“We’ll have data that we currently do not have over the next six months,” Apple said. “And at that time we may decide to lower it to 14; we may decide to lower it to 12.”

Geologically placid for decades, southern Kansas began to be rocked by earthquakes in 2013, corresponding to an increase in “fracking,” an oil industry term for using high-pressure liquid to fracture subsurface rock to free trapped pockets of oil and gas.

The Kansas Geological Survey ruled out fracking itself as a major cause of quakes, instead pointing to disposal wells used to get rid of oilfield wastewater by injecting it into rock formations deep underground. Geologists say the wastewater upsets the balance between layers of rock deep underground, causing that rock to shift and generating the tremors felt at ground level.

With Kansas wells, about 16 barrels of water comes up for each barrel of oil produced. The water, trapped underground for ages, is too polluted with oil and salt to be disposed of at ground level.

In the five most quake-prone zones on the Kansas side of the state line, the dumping limit will remain the same as it was, no more than 8,000 barrels per well per day.

In a more expansive area around those five zones – extending into southeast Kingman County, southwest Sedgwick County and the eastern edge of Barber County – wastewater injection will be reduced from the current limit of 25,000 barrels a day to 16,000.

The order also slightly enlarged the area where disposal is restricted, by squaring it off to township lines. That takes in two additional disposal wells that weren’t in the original area and will make it easier for staff to enforce the regulations, officials said.

Any violation of the disposal limit or record-keeping requirements could result in a $10,000-a-day fine and shutdown and sealing of the well.

Federal seismologist Justin Rubinstein, speaking at the Kansas Cosmosphere on April 30, 2016, said the state is seeing fewer earthquakes, in part because of state mandates. But more regulations are being looked at and the state remains among the m

(Oliver Morrison/The Wichita Eagle)

Rex Buchanan says earthquake increase is almost certainly caused by increased oil waste disposal. (Sept. 3, 2015)

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