A plan by a Florida company to drill two saltwater injection wells near Eudora has sparked concern they'll create the type of earthquakes that Oklahoma has experienced with its most recent oil boom.
But a geologist from Lawrence who has worked in the oil and gas industry for more than 40 years is speaking up about the issue, saying the wells pose little to no risk of causing earthquakes, and that some opponents are confusing the proposal with the more controversial practice of "fracking." In fact, data indicates the type of well the Florida company is seeking to drill already has been drilled more than 100 times before in Douglas County.
"The proposed wastewater injection will not cause earthquakes to occur in Douglas County," Marty Dubois, a consultant to the oil and gas industry and the Kansas Geological Survey, wrote in a recent letter to City of Lawrence and Douglas County officials. "If operated as prescribed by the Kansas Corporation Commission, it will not pose a hazard to groundwater."
Environmental groups, though, aren't so sure. Several groups say they still think more research should be done before state regulators grant a permit.
Florida-based Midstates Energy Operating, LLC, filed an application in October to drill saltwater injection wells on property known as the Hadl and Thrasher leases, about 3 miles southeast of Eudora.
Typically, the oil and gas industry uses saltwater injection for one of two purposes — either to permanently dispose of saltwater waste, which is a byproduct of oil production; or to squeeze more production out of an existing oil well by using the saltwater to physically push oil in a reservoir toward the well.
That second type of well is known as an "enhanced oil recovery" well, and according to the Kansas Corporation Commission, there are currently two active saltwater disposal wells in Douglas County and 177 enhanced oil recovery wells.
The permit applications that Midstates Energy filed with the KCC do not directly indicate which type of wells they are proposing — both oil recovery wells and saltwater disposal wells are categorized as saltwater injection wells. But based on the fact that the wells are proposed for a depth of around 820 feet, into what is known as the Squirrel Formation, the same formation in which the oil is located, officials at the Kansas Geological Survey say it is likely that the company is proposing enhanced oil recovery wells.
Dave Newell, a research geologist for the Kansas Geological Survey, said wastewater disposal wells would typically be drilled to a deeper depth, into a layer known as the Arbuckle Formation more than 1,000 feet below the surface.
Regardless of which type of well it is, neither involve the extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that has been associated with seismic activity in other parts of the United States, Dubois said.
That process involves using pressurized liquid to crack apart, or fracture layers of earth in order to loosen up oil and gas deposits.
"Hydraulic fracturing has nothing to do with saltwater injection or water disposal," Dubois said. "Fracking is a process. The permitting process has nothing to do with fracking."
But environmental groups do correctly note that there have been concerns with the saltwater injection process, even absent fracking. In 2015, the Kansas Corporation Commission imposed new limits on the volume of wastewater that could be injected into wells in portions of Harper and Sumner counties in south-central Kansas after officials at the Kansas Geological Survey said there was a likely link between those wells and a series of minor earthquakes in the area, some of which caused property damage.
But Dubois said there are major differences between the injection wells in south-central Kansas and the ones being proposed in Douglas County, most notably in the volume of wastewater involved.
In 2015, the KCC limited the wells in Harper and Sumner counties to an average of no more than 16,000 barrels of water per day over a 10-day period, or 8,000 barrels a day over 100 days. In other areas outside the restriction zone, typical injection rates are around 25,000 barrels a day.
Midstates Energy's application for Douglas County proposes wells with a maximum injection rate of only 100 barrels a day.
But environmental activists in Lawrence say they remain skeptical of the project, and they want regulators to conduct more research, especially into the potential risk of seismic activity, before issuing a permit for the wells.
Officials at the Kansas Sierra Club have noted, for example, that a known geological fault called the Worden Fault Line stretches along an east-west line for about 8 miles, starting just east of Baldwin City. And even though that is several miles away from the proposed injection wells, the Sierra Club says the potential risk should be investigated.
"Our state regulators ought to be addressing the question of seismological hazard of proposed drilling and injection wells before earthquakes happen and before these types of activities are approved, not after," Zack Pistora, state lobbyist for the organization, said in a statement. "We will continue to urge the KCC and Legislature to address poorly-sited oil and gas injection wells and their responsibility for causing manmade earthquakes."
Gil Zemansky, who works with a group called the Water Advocacy Team, said in a letter urging the KCC to reject the permit that Kansas does not have adequate regulations to protect the public.
"To date, we are unaware of any oil or gas company in Kansas being held accountable for causing earthquakes or ignoring the rights of Kansas landowners and residents when they want to utilize other people’s property," he wrote in a letter forwarded to the Journal-World. "Florida-based Midstates Energy has given no assurances that it will do anything more than operate to maximize their short-term profit by exploiting others from a distance."
The Water Advocacy Team has scheduled a public forum for Monday, Nov. 20 to discuss recent drilling applications in Douglas County. The event is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Flory Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 2120 Harper St. in Lawrence.