Editorial: Questioning injection wells

Given the relationship between wastewater injection wells and a spike in earthquakes in Oklahoma and southern Kansas, Lawrence and Douglas County officials are right to raise questions about a plan to expand the number of wells here.

Florida-based Midstates Energy Operating LLC has filed permit applications for two such wastewater wells in an area about five miles south of Lawrence along North 1000 Road, also known as County Road 458. The applications indicate a maximum injection of 100 barrels of wastewater each day per well, which works out to 8,400 gallons of wastewater per day.

The Kansas Corporation Commission reviews and approves injection well permits. Midstate Energy has announced it is seeking the permits, kicking off a 30-day protest period during which residents can make known their opposition to the wells.

Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus and Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug submitted a joint letter last week to the KCC that raised concerns about the review process for injection wells. The letter requested that the KCC extend the protest period for Midstates Energy Operating’s permit application until an analysis can be completed showing the injection wells will not endanger underground water resources or increase the risk of earthquakes.

Disposal wells are used to get rid of wastewater — a mixture of saltwater, oil and chemicals — that results from drilling in the oil and gas industry. The wastewater is injected into wells deep underground, oftentimes even deeper than the pockets of oil and gas. In Kansas, one barrel of oil produces 16 barrels of wastewater polluted with oil and salt.

There are two existing disposal wells in Douglas County, the KCC said.

It is the disposal of wastewater underground that geologists say is responsible for the spike in earthquakes in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma, a region that now rivals Northern California as the country’s most earthquake prone. A year ago, a 5.6-magnitude earthquake centered near Pawnee, Okla., rattled homes in Lawrence.

“We know the neighboring state of Oklahoma has had huge problems with earthquakes and damage that has occurred,” Weinaug said. “And we don’t know whether they have done an analysis to make sure it protected any water tables or water resources. And so essentially, the letter just said (the protest period) doesn’t give us enough time to make sure our residents are protected.”

The joint city-county letter asks the KCC to consider moving to a 60-day protest period, notify cities and counties directly of well applications and make it the responsibility of the oil and gas industry and the KCC that such wells will not be harmful. Current rules put the onus on well opponents to prove that such wells would be harmful.

The KCC has not yet responded to the letter. Still, it was the right step for the city and county to take. Underground wastewater injection wells have a shaky history in this region and more information is needed before such wells warrant approval.