Eagle editorial: Downtown drilling not worth the risk

Drilling an oil well under Century II is tempting – especially the potential for $1 million a year in revenue. But concerns about the negative impact on downtown development make it not worth the risk.

City staff have been working with officials at Trek AEC, a Wichita company that is the only bidder to drill for oil below Century II. The plan is to drill horizontally from city-owned land across the Arkansas River near McLean and First Street.

The well reportedly has a one-in-15 chance of generating $1 million in annual oil revenue. If it were successful, that extra money could certainly come in handy in helping build a new library or supporting other city services, such as the bus system.

But that money could come at a high cost. Too high.

Officials at the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. are concerned about how the project’s smell and noise might affect downtown projects. Already, developers of the planned $24 million River Vista apartments on the west bank of the river are considering pulling out of the project if there is an oil well next door. Nearby Delano residents also oppose the project.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer also is understandably concerned that a city oil well could open “a big can of worms,” as other downtown property owners might seek to drill their own wells.

“How do you tell people who own property nearby that they can’t do what you just did?” he asked.

Another red flag is that an individual associated with the project has had unpaid state taxes, loan defaults and debt recovery judgments in the past 10 years. Perhaps the city’s vetting of Trek AEC will conclude that these problems and another tax dispute aren’t deal-breakers. But they raise more doubts about the wisdom of the project.

Century II is one of three locations where geologists believe there is oil under city land. They also think there is oil at Mid-Continent Airport in southwest Wichita and near Jabara Airport in northeast Wichita.

The airport locations likely could be acceptable places to drill, as these are mostly industrial areas. But don’t put downtown Wichita at risk.

Plug this oil-well idea.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee