Kansas Geological Survey links earthquakes to fracking waste disposal

Crews “frack” a deep well that runs a mile underground near Medicine Lodge (2011)
Crews “frack” a deep well that runs a mile underground near Medicine Lodge (2011) File photo

The disposal of waste saltwater from hydraulic fracturing could be to blame for a sharp increase in earthquakes in south-central Kansas, according to a geophysicist with the Kansas Geological Survey.

Rick Miller’s comments are the first by a state official to clearly suggest a link between hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, and the earthquakes that have rattled the area in the last two years, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

The state recorded more than 120 earthquakes last year, up from none in 2012.

Early Monday morning four earthquakes ocurred in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma. The strongest was a 4.1 on the Richter scale about nine miles east of Cherokee, Okla., at 4:20 a.m. That came less than a half-hour after a 3.9 tremblor struck about seven miles east-northeast of Anthony in Harper County. Three minutes earlier, another quake struck about seven miles south of Caldwell and measured 2.7 on the Richter scale.

During hydraulic fracturing, a mixture of saltwater and chemicals pumped into the ground to break up rock formations and release oil and gas. Operators then inject the waste water deep into disposal wells.

“We can say there is a strong correlation between the disposal of saltwater and the earthquakes,” Miller said.

Rex Buchanan, director of the Kansas Geological Survey, stressed that it is likely disposal of the waste water, not the fracking itself, which causes seismic movement.

“If someone were to say these earthquakes were caused by fracking, there might be one or two, but there is no evidence for it,” Buchanan said. “The issue of saltwater disposal is completely different.”

A task force appointed a year ago by Gov. Sam Brownback to study the problem said in a report released in September that not enough evidence existed to link the two.

A leader of the Sierra Club Kansas criticized Buchanan and other state officials for their response.

“It is so ridiculous, this issue of semantics,” said Joe Spease, chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club’s fracking committee and owner of a renewable energy company in Overland Park. “There are millions of dollars in property damages happening, and we have our scientists playing word games.”

The Kansas Sierra Club supports imposing a moratorium on fracking until the oil and gas industry develops a plan to deal with saltwater disposal, Spease said.

“If the government and the Kansas Corporation Commission care about the people of Kansas and the damages, they will order a moratorium,” Spease said. “If they only care about the profits of the oil and gas (industry), it will be business as usual. I hope that is not the case.”

State Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican who has served on several Federal Energy Regulatory Commission committees and task forces, said a moratorium would hurt the economy.

“How do you draw the line?” he asked.

“If you don’t allow fracking, you will shut down the entire industry,” he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle