A legislative hearing Monday left lawmakers with no clear way forward for stopping human-induced earthquakes in south-central Kansas.
“I don’t think you can do anything,” at least without more study, Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said after watching a presentation to the House Energy and Environment Committee.
The committee heard testimony from representatives of the Kansas Geological Survey, the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The dramatic increase in both the number and magnitude of earthquakes in south-central Kansas correlates to increased oil production activity – but not directly to the controversial extraction process known as “fracking” – agency officials told the committee.
State scientists said it’s likely that increased reinjection of salty wastewater from oil and gas drilling is linked to the earthquakes.
The water is so tainted with salt and other chemicals – and there’s so much of it – that surface disposal is not an economically feasible option, officials said.
But Whitmer said he doesn’t think there’s an appetite to slow down the increased production of oil and gas that’s brought an economic mini-boom to the counties south of Wichita.
He said he was pleased to hear that the scientists have found no evidence that the quakes are being caused by fracking, which helped open up previously inaccessible pockets of underground oil and gas.
“You’d hate to put people out of work over something you know doesn’t have any direct link (to the earthquakes),” Whitmer said.
Fracking, technically known as “hydraulic fracturing,” uses high-pressure water and chemicals injected deep underground to break rock strata and open previously unrecoverable pockets of gas and oil.
“I think (researchers) do see a correlation between the increased number and volume of disposal wells in south-central Kansas and seismic activity,” said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey. “But again, and I think it’s been said at least three times here, we don’t make any connection between that seismic activity and hydraulic fracturing.”
Ryan Hoffman, director of the conservation division at the Kansas Corporation Commission, reported that oil and gas production has increased dramatically in Harper County and somewhat in neighboring Sumner County.
Those two counties are at the epicenter of both the oil and earthquake booms.
Harper County has seen its oil production rise from 361,000 barrels a year in 2010 to nearly 1.9 million barrels in the first nine months of last year. Gas production rose from slightly less than 5 billion cubic feet to more than 16 billion in the same time frames.
Sumner County production has increased at a slower rate, from near 415,000 barrels of oil in 2010 to 531,000 in the first three quarters of 2014, and from 710 million cubic feet of gas to 834 million.
Common to both counties was a huge increase in the amount of wastewater being put back in the ground.
In Harper County, annual wastewater reinjection rose from about 11.3 million barrels in 2009 to nearly 52 million barrels by 2013, the most recent numbers available.
In Sumner County, oil wastewater disposal nearly doubled, from 5.7 million barrels in 2009 to 10.7 million in 2013.
The biggest jumps in production and waste disposal came in 2013 and 2014, years that saw record increases in quakes and their magnitudes.
A magnitude-4.3 earthquake in November, which shook the tiny town of Milan in Sumner County, is the largest recorded quake in Kansas since seismograph monitoring began here in the 1970s.
The Kansas and U.S. geological surveys are increasing monitoring of quakes in Kansas to try to gain a clearer understanding of the cause of the earthquakes and the locations of subsurface faults.
That information could help predict the possible locations and maximum magnitudes of quakes in the area, officials said.
Buchanan of the geological survey said that about $500,000 is needed to increase seismic monitoring.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the Legislature needs to adequately fund the research to figure out what’s going on.
“It’s clear to me that everyone agrees we need more data, and we need it quickly,” Carmichael said. “To delay the funding is playing Russian roulette.
“There’s always the possibility that a catastrophic event will occur particularly related to injection wells,” he said. “That would be devastating to the oil and gas industry, not to mention the lives and property involved.”
Last year the committee passed a bill to fund seismic monitoring, but the money was significantly reduced in the budget process, he said.
He said the underlying problem is there’s not enough money to fund state services.
“That’s the important lesson we ought to be learning here,” he said.
From 1977 to 2012, there were two earthquakes in Harper and Sumner counties of magnitude 2.0 or greater. Since Jan. 1, 2013, there have been 138.
The shaking continued Monday.
During and just after the legislative hearing, there were two earthquakes just south of the Sumner County line in Oklahoma.
A small magnitude-2.6 earthquake hit at about 10 a.m, followed by a larger magnitude-4.3 quake at 1:30 p.m.
Contributing: Stan Finger
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.