New wave of oil drilling disrupts rural neighborhoods
Victoria Guerrero says she and her husband, Fernando, were stunned last February when they returned to Douglas County after Fernando’s two-year military deployment to Germany.
The 10-acre plot of land southeast of Baldwin City they’d bought just before leaving and where they’d planned to build their dream home was now dotted with oil wells.
Four new oil wells, Victoria Guerrero said, plus an injection well for the disposal of drilling waste.
Although the Guerreros knew when they bought the land that someone else held a lease to the mineral rights, Victoria said there had been little or no drilling activity in that area for many years. And during the two years they were overseas while Fernando served his tour of duty, she said they never received any notice that the leaseholder intended to drill.
“They’re supposed to, according to the KCC (the Kansas Corporation Commission), but we never got any notification of anything,” Victoria said. “If they had, questions would have been raised then.”
Now, she says, the land they bought for $65,000 has recently been appraised at less than half that amount, and no bank will give them a loan to build on it because there is no place to build that would meet the set-back requirements for building near a well.
The new oil boom in eastern Kansas
The Guerreros are not alone. In recent years, as new technologies like hydraulic fracturing and injection drilling have made it possible to get more oil out of formerly low-producing wells, landowners throughout parts of northeast Kansas have seen oil drillers coming onto their land with heavy trucks and drilling machinery, turning their once peaceful, rural homesteads into industrial-scale oil production meccas.
In Douglas County and some surrounding areas, one oil operator in particular is raising the ire of property owners: R.T. Enterprises Inc., based in Louisburg, whose owner, Lance Town, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In March 2013 alone, according to Kansas Corporation Commission records, R.T. Enterprises filed 52 notices of intent to drill in the single square-mile section southeast of Baldwin City where the Guerreros bought their land.
Victoria’s mother, Sara Yardley, who lives on the land just south of the Guerreros’ property, said she has been told that R.T. Enterprises plans to drill several wells on her property, including one in her front yard, another within a few feet of her water well and another inside her barn.
“You kind of feel like you don’t own your property anymore,” Yardley said.
Both Guerrero and Yardley say they are not opposed to oil drilling, or the use of fossil fuels generally. In fact, they say they enjoy the royalty checks they now get each month for the oil taken out of their property.
“I just don’t want to have to deal with him,” Guerrero said of Town. “The chances of us selling our land is zero percent now. I would like to get him off the property and get a different operator.”
Complaints of over-drilling and lax regulation
The mineral rights in that square-mile section are covered by two leases, known as the Pearson and Finnerty leases, named after the landowners who originally sold the rights in the early 1900s.
Amy Adamson, who also owns property in that area, said the leases state that no wells may be drilled within 200 feet of an existing structure. But while she and the other landowners have always believed that meant structures that exist at the time of the drilling, they say R.T. Enterprises claims it means structures that existed in 1918 and 1919 when the leases were established — structures that no longer exist.
“When we built our house here in 2002, we assumed we would have good protection,” Adamson said.
Adamson said the KCC has declined to get involved in those disputes, saying it’s a civil matter between the oil operators and the landowners.
She also said the KCC has been allowing R.T. Enterprises to drill as many as one well for every 2.5 acres on the lease, four times more than the one per 10 acres spelled out in Kansas regulations. And for every four oil wells, she said, there is also an injection well for the disposal of salt water and other byproducts of the drilling process.
State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said he has heard numerous complaints about new drilling operations, including some from as far away as Miami County.
“There are drillers who have no intention at all to work with landowners,” Holland said. “They’re not playing nicely in the sandbox.”
Holland recently introduced legislation that he says would give surface-right holders more protection when old leases are suddenly reactivated.
Among other things, Senate Bill 319 would amend current oil and gas law to limit oil drilling to one well per 10 acres, unless the property owner consents to additional wells. It would also require the KCC to adopt rules and regulations governing wells within 1,000 feet of an occupied structure to protect the rights and safety of the people living there.
“With these new technologies coming into play, you’ve got places where they’ve had wells in the past but they’ve been low producing or idle for several years,” Holland said. “In the meantime, you have people who’ve bought homes out in the country, and it’s a quality-of-life issue.”
Holland’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing on the issue.