Editorial: Quake connection

The number and intensity of earthquakes in south-central Kansas has declined, but the state still needs a long-term strategy on the disposal of wastewater from oil wells.

A recent reduction in earthquakes in some south-central Kansas counties has pretty much confirmed a connection between the quakes and the underground disposal of saltwater that is used to extract oil from wells in that area.

Despite that reduction, a Kansas Geological Survey official said last week it would be shortsighted to assume the problem “has gone away.”

Regulations enacted by the Kansas Corporation Commission in March set limits on how much wastewater from the wells could be pumped underground. Since that time, both the frequency and intensity of the earthquakes has declined, said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the geological survey. A drop in oil prices also has resulted in reduced oil production in the last six months, he said, so it’s hard to say whether KCC regulation or reduced production was the primary factor in reducing wastewater disposal.

That’s an important issue because the KCC regulations are set to expire on Sept. 13. As Buchanan noted, “oil prices will not always be lower,” so reduced production probably isn’t a good long-term strategy to address the wastewater/earthquake problem. That means that continued regulation probably will be needed.

According to Wichita news reports, the KCC is working on recommendations on how to proceed when the wastewater regulations expire. For the short term, it seems those regulations should be extended, but, in the long term, Kansas — and other states, like Oklahoma, that are having similar problems — need to look at other issues related to wastewater disposal, such as possible groundwater contamination.

“We’ve got to look at other places,” said Buchanan, “and we’ve got to be better prepared than we were last time.”

The six-month trial policy put in place by the KCC was a good effort to address an urgent problem. That six months also provided significant data to guide future decisions, but work clearly remains to be done.