Guest Commentary

Get the facts about injection wells and seismic activity

Edward Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association.
Edward Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association.

More often than not, activists’ comments and media accounts continue to get it wrong when it comes to the issue of injection wells and induced seismicity — the occurence of earthquake activity. Whether this frustrating pattern is due to a deliberate mischaracterization of the facts or if an honest lack of understanding of the issue is to blame, the unfortunate byproduct in both instances is a misinformed public. The information provided by some activists and media sources often confuses the public with assertions that are out of context and need more information for a complete and informed discussion. So it is worth examining some of these claims to see just how much they diverge from reality.

Regarding seismic activity in Kansas, here are some facts. Prior to 2015, there were very few seismic monitors in Kansas. Therefore, very few seismic events were recorded. When former Gov. Sam Brownback formed the State Task Force on Induced Seismicity in 2014, one of the first things they did was install additional seismic monitors in south-central Kansas. When you install more monitors, you will almost assuredly measure more seismic activity. With these new monitors installed, more seismic events were recorded (most which are not felt earthquakes). But that is not to say these events were not occurring prior to 2015 — only that they were now being recorded.

The Kansas oil and gas industry has taken the issue of induced seismicity very seriously. The Kansas Geological Survey, the KCC or Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are devoting significant resources to analyzing seismicity causes. Industry has supported these efforts to provide assurance that an improved understanding of seismic issues is available to all. These efforts are producing results. The latest data from Sept. 13 shows a 41 percent decrease in seismic activity in Kansas since January 2015.

Let’s look at the injection well application notice issue. Here are the facts. Between October 2008 and February 2018, about 4,300 injection well applications were reviewed by the KCC. From these reviews, 1,007 applications, involviong 2,111 wells, were issued injection permits after operators published notice of the permit application with a 15-day notice instead of the required 30 days. The average time between KCC’s receipt of an injection well permit application and issuance of the permit during that 2008-2018 period was about 90 days. Only 29 applications, or 2.88 percent of the 1,007 applications, were issued a permit in less than 30 days. It should be noted that 21 of the 29 applications were issued at 28 or 29 days, probably allowing for mailing time.

The injection wells permitted in the 2008-2018 period met the regulatory requirements, protected usable water and correlative rights and helped prevent waste. The discrepancy between the notices published by the operators and the legal protest time frame is a harmless error that did not violate any KCC regulation. The law is clear that such discrepancies were not fatal defects to the KCC’s jurisdiction or authority to approve the injection applications. Finally, there is no evidence that any person’s due process rights were affected by the publications.

The KCC’s Sept. 6 order saying no action shall be taken by the KCC against the subject permits in the docket was very pragmatic and appropriate. Arguments by those who called for the KCC to revoke the permits offered no real evidence and used weak logic.

Mischaracterizing oil and gas activity has been and continues to be a common practice and strategy of activist groups across the nation. This pattern of accusation without scientific evidence is intended to create public anxiety about oil and gas production and to discredit effective regulatory programs. Activists commonly assert that the oil and gas industry is under-regulated or even unregulated. These are false assertions. Nevertheless, these activists continue tactics to denigrate and demean current state regulatory programs. This is a tired, worn-out, unsuccessful strategy and we now see this happening in Kansas.

We continue to see activist groups attempt to advance political agendas by using fear. Fear has become a principal means of directing public opinion away from the facts, and in the case of injection wells and earthquakes, it is occurring with a well-known and historically acceptable process associated with recovering oil and gas from the earth. Fear of the unknown is primal and instinctive, and is part of all of us. I cannot, and will not, criticize the fear of those who are afraid of what they do not know. Rather, I applaud those who raise relevant questions and want answers concerning activities they do not understand. My criticism is reserved for those who exploit and pander to fear by repeatedly citing unproven anecdotes to advance political agendas.

Several recent studies and reports have found very few injection wells have been linked to induced seismicity, and the risk from these wells is low.

The most recent comprehensive study based on data from the USGS, the U.S. Geological Survey, and peer-reviewed studies found that less than one percent of injection wells across the nation and in Kansas have been linked to induced seismicity. The USGS states on its Myths and Misconceptions webpage that “most injection wells are not associated with felt earthquakes.”

A report conducted by StatesFirst, an initiative of the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, took a comprehensive look at potential induced seismicity associated with injection wells. The report finds that seismicity linked to oil and gas development is rare, that the risk associated with these rare occurrences are minimal, and that understanding of induced seismicity is growing and mitigation techniques are proving effective. The report also notes that a “vast majority of earthquakes are tectonic, or attributable to natural causes.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says Class II injection wells are “a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done.” There is extensive information available on the EPA’s website, which describes how Class II wells “protect drinking water resources” and “prevent surface contamination of soil and water.” A separate section of EPA’s website describes all injection wells, not just the Class II variety, as a “safe” option for disposal.

The bottom line is these studies and more confirm what have long been true: that seismicity induced by injection wells is rare and certainly not a widespread issue. Despite misleading claims exaggerating risks and incorrectly linking seismicity to injection wells, the risk of induced seismicity from injection wells is small, rare, and manageable.

The problem with activist and media reports on injection wells and induced seismicity is they work backward from a conclusion. They try to support their ideas by cherry-picking and misrepresenting data and information to suggest a problem, conveniently ignoring crucial details that would provide a more complete representation of the issues discussed. The reality is this. State regulators, in conjunction with the EPA, carefully oversee injection wells with tight regulations and high operating standards.

Neither fear-mongering nor unproven anecdotes can conceal or deny that Class II injection wells are safe and well-regulated. Let’s not be afraid of injection wells.

Edward Cross is president of the Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association.