Clear up fracking’s link to a rise in Kansas earthquakes

Crews used equipment during fracking of a well a mile underground near Medicine Lodge, Kan.
Crews used equipment during fracking of a well a mile underground near Medicine Lodge, Kan. The Wichita Eagle

While a top Kansas geologist says fracking isn’t directly causing a huge spike in earthquakes in the state, officials must improve seismic monitoring stations to better evaluate this problem.

The number and intensity of the earthquakes understandably concern many residents, especially in the south-central part of the state.

Between 1975 and 2012, Kansas averaged one earthquake a year that was strong enough to feel. But it recorded 115 of those kinds of quakes in just 2013 and 2014.

Environmentalists who criticize the pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing reasonably want to see more evidence of how that extraction process might or might not be linked to earthquakes.

In fracking, companies draw oil and gas out of the ground after injecting massive amounts of saltwater and chemicals to break up rock far below the surface. That waste saltwater is then injected into deep underground disposal wells.

That’s not a new procedure in Kansas. But Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey, said today’s horizontal wells produce more fossil fuels — and more waste saltwater — which require the use of larger disposal wells. And it’s those wells that he says may be linked to the quakes.

“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.”

However, as critics note, fracking has required the new, larger disposal wells.

“It is so ridiculous, this issue of semantics,” said Joe Spease, chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club’s fracking committee.

Kansas oil and gas producers contend hydraulic fracturing is a cost-effective way to get the fuels out of the ground, so they are likely to continue the practice.

And a moratorium on fracking sought by the Sierra Club is equally unlikely to happen unless better evidence links it to the earthquakes.

Buchanan told state officials his agency would require an extra $500,000 or so to operate an upgraded network of seismic monitoring stations.

The state needs to appropriate the funds to more fully investigate links between fracking, the use of the large injection wells and the recent increase in earthquakes.