Kansas lawmakers could face debate over earthquake damage payments
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Story updated at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18:
Wichita — Kansas lawmakers are likely to face renewed debate in the next legislative session about how or whether to hold oil and gas companies accountable for property damage caused by earthquakes in Kansas.
Earthquakes have increased in Kansas since 2013 when fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, became more common for oil and gas exploration, although the intensity has been reduced in recent years. Some researchers believe injection of wastewater from the explorations into underground wells contributes to the quakes — a claim that industry officials dispute, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
Joe Spease, chairman of the Legislative, Energy, and Hydraulic Fracturing committees for Kansas Sierra Club, said the Legislature should impose a fee on companies using injection wells to dump wastewater. He suggested the rate could be based on volume of material injected with the money distributed to property owners with damage.
“We want some type of justice for these people,” Spease said. “KIOGA attacks us. But people understand most of us concerned about ‘frackquakes’ are not out to get the oil and gas industry.”
Ed Cross, executive director Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, said companies would go out of business and jobs would be lost if such fees were imposed on the industry. He said it is not possible to link specific damage to a particular injection well.
“I don’t think there’s any proof out there that says it was this or that injection well,” Cross said.
New research, which is challenged by the oil industry, concluded that wastewater injection was responsible in 2017 for several earthquakes felt hundreds of miles from injection hot spots.
The disposal of hundreds of millions of barrels of salty water from oil and gas corporations increased pressure within rock formations and that pressure migrated north along faults through Kansas, causing quakes felt in Hutchinson, Hays and Salina, with some felt as far as Jewell County near the Nebraska border.
“There were a series of earthquakes in April. It seemed like a Saturday night special kind of thing,” said state Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson. “The people around here shouldn’t have to deal with it. It scares people and damages their property.”
Lawmakers also must consider whether the state will fund beyond June a network of gear installed to track the quakes. Also, the Kansas Corporation Commission is considering making permanent several limitations on wastewater injection.
State Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who has felt earthquakes at his home and serves on the House energy committee, said a Kansas Geological Survey analysis of earthquake migration raised a challenge of assigning liability because years could lapse between injection and an earthquake.
He said the best approach would be for the state to limit wastewater injection to levels that didn’t promote earthquakes. If that isn’t possible, he said, requiring oil producers to pay into a trust fund to compensate for property damaged would be reasonable.
“Obviously, the oil and gas industry in Kansas and Oklahoma is not very excited because it would raise production costs,” Carmichael said. “We have to be careful we don’t make it more expensive to produce oil on the Kansas side than on the Oklahoma side.”