Kansas House panel rejects bill aimed at preventing earthquakes

The House of Representatives chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014 in Topeka.

? A Kansas House committee rejected a bill Thursday that was aimed at preventing earthquakes that are triggered by certain activity related to oil and gas production.

The bill came at the request of the Kansas Sierra Club and several homeowners who said they have suffered property damage as a result of those quakes. But it was strongly opposed by lobbyists for the oil and gas industry.

Cindy Hoedel, of Matfield Green, said there were no earthquakes in her area when she moved to that part of the Flint Hills five years ago. Now, she says, she experiences earthquakes on a regular basis, including one recent quake that she said was so strong it almost shook her out of her bed.

“We’re here in front of you today at the Legislature because the regulatory system has failed,” she said. “Their mission (at the Kansas Corporation Commission) calls for them to regulate the oil and gas industry to protect the public safety. They’re not doing it.”

According to the Kansas Geological Survey, most of the earthquakes that have occurred in Kansas are the result of injecting large volumes of wastewater from oil and gas production into disposal wells located deep underground in what is known as the Arbuckle formation.

Over time, the pressure caused by that injection process sometimes cracks the underlying bedrock, resulting in earthquakes.

In 2015, after a rash of such quakes in south-central Kansas, the KCC issued an order limiting the amount of water that could be injected into wells in some portions of Harper and Sumner counties to 8,000 barrels per day.

But the order only applied to wells in areas that were identified as being at risk for seismic activity.

House Bill 2641 would have imposed that same restriction on an estimated 430 other injection wells scattered throughout the state.

Edward Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, argued that the bill was based on a number of false assumptions about the causes of earthquakes in Kansas, and he called it a political effort by “activists” that he said were trying to disrupt the oil and gas industry.

“They work backwards from a conclusion using an innuendo-filled collection of unfounded allegations to generate anxiety around injection wells and oil and gas development in general,” he said in written testimony. “They offer ideas that are contradictory or otherwise separated from reality and try to manufacture debate that confuses policymakers and the public with assertions that are out of context and need more information for a complete and informed discussion.”

Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, however, argued that the problem with earthquakes in Kansas is real, although she conceded that much of it is the result of oil and gas production in Oklahoma, not just Kansas.

“I live in Topeka,” she said. “Two years ago, early in the morning, my 100-year-old house groaned and made a lot of noise and shook with a very big earthquake,” she said. “So it seems to me, we need to do more work with Oklahoma.”

Kuether later said that quake had been identified as originating in Oklahoma.

When it came time to take action on the bill, Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, one of its main supporters, suggested referring it to an interim study committee so it could be worked on over the summer and fall.

Rep. Steven Crum, D-Haysville, supported that idea.

“I know that (the industry) may think it’s faulty science,” he said. “All I know is that I now have earthquake insurance on my house, and I never had to do that before. I have cracks and my parents have cracks, and I know that our school district has to look at earthquake insurance now, as well as the city.”

But Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, who is vice chair of the committee, said he opposed asking for an interim study.

“The passion from both sides showed me that you believe what you want to believe,” he said.

The committee voted by an unrecorded voice vote not to advance the bill to the full House.

Committee chairman Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said afterward that the panel still could vote later in the session to request an interim study committee.