The Kansas Corporation Commission has further restricted the amount of oilfield wastewater that can be injected underground in southern Kansas in the hopes of further reducing the number of earthquakes in the region.
Earlier restrictions led to a drop in earthquakes, mostly in Harper and Sumner counties, experts said. During a meeting Tuesday, the commission left in place an 8,000-barrel per day limit in five of the most quake-prone areas of those two counties.
But it put a 16,000-barrel per day limit on the rest of those two counties and parts of Kingman, Sedgwick and Butler counties, The Wichita Eagle reported.
“We’ve taken action to see that we don’t have the seismic activity we’ve seen south of Kansas (mostly in Oklahoma),” said Commissioner Pat Apple, who approved the new restrictions along with Chairman Jay Emler.
The commission’s order said it found that increased seismic activity is an immediate danger to the public health, safety, and welfare.
Commissioner Shari Feist Albrecht filed a dissenting opinion favoring even stronger restrictions. She agreed with the KCC staff, which wanted to limit dumping to 12,000 barrels a day, saying she believes 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 order calls for continued monitoring of earthquakes and wastewater disposal. The restrictions could be further reduced if the 16,000-barrel limit proves ineffective, Apple said.
“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.”
Earthquakes began occurring more frequently in southern Kansas and Oklahoma in 2013 after an increase of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which high-pressure liquid is used to fracture subsurface rock to free trapped pockets of oil and gas.
The Kansas Geological Survey determined that fracking wasn’t causing the earthquakes but said the practice of injecting oilfield wastewater into rock formations underground was a likely cause. Underground water upsets the balance between layers of rock deep underground, causing that rock to shift and generating the tremors felt on the surface.
About 16 barrels of wastewater comes up for each barrel of oil produced in Kansas. The wastewater is too polluted with oil and salt to be disposed of at ground level.
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.