Views from Kansas: Action needed on earthquakes
Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.
Folks in the Hutchinson region recently experienced unsettling jolts in a series of earthquakes, the worst of which was a magnitude 4.2. With an epicenter about three miles from Hutchinson, that quake was felt as far away as Ponca City, Okla.; Topeka; and Kansas City, Mo., some 200 miles from Hutchinson. Three quakes with magnitudes ranging from 2.8 to 3.3 quickly followed in the area.
All of the tremors fell into the range described as “felt,” with the potential to cause minor damage. While not potent enough to result in significant damage, the shock waves did leave Kansans and others to wonder when they’ll experience more of the same or even worse earthquakes.
Kansans also want something done to alleviate a threat many experts attribute to human acts.
Blame for the earthquakes has centered on saltwater injection, which stems from the process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), in which rock is fractured in an effort to extract oil and gas.
Drilling companies separate the water from extracted oil and gas — wastewater too polluted with oil and salt to be disposed of at ground level — and typically re-inject that water into deeper disposal wells. Scientists say the wastewater serves as a lubricant in allowing movement and shifting of geological structures, which can trigger earthquakes.
Kansas began seeing a spike in earthquakes in 2014 in a region of the Plains known for oil-and-gas production. After a record-setting surge of earthquakes, a number of factors combined to reduce the frequency of earthquakes — namely, a drop in oil prices that slowed production, as well as new restrictions on the volume of wastewater injected.
The shift toward fewer earthquakes was encouraging, but the problem clearly wasn’t solved. The threat of potentially damaging quakes lingers.
A study on the consequences of wastewater injection predicted one potentially damaging magnitude 5.0 or larger earthquake before 2021 if current industry practices continue in Kansas and Oklahoma.
In an attempt to curb the number of quakes in the region, the Kansas Corporation Commission in recent years did restrict the amount of oilfield wastewater that can be injected underground in southern Kansas — although when implemented, KCC staff at the time said the limitations on wastewater injected didn’t go far enough.
It’s all left policymakers with more work to do. One question is whether oil-and-gas companies engaged in wastewater injection should be held accountable in some way. A trust fund created by those companies that would compensate for damage is one possibility worthy of consideration.
Mother Nature’s repeated warnings cannot be ignored. While there’s been some progress, policymakers must pursue more in-depth study and action.
Kansans deserve better than being left to fret over whether there are destructive earthquakes ahead.
Moving forward, one thing’s certain: The region will experience more earthquakes. All involved who can make a difference should move with a greater sense of purpose and not wait for an earthquake to cause significant harm to people and property before taking meaningful action.
— Originally published in The Topeka Capital-Journal.