Flurry of earthquakes in Salina region raise new questions about wastewater injection

KCC exploring oil-and-gas industry drilling, fluid disposal in wake of tremblors

By: - December 30, 2021 1:07 pm
A U.S. Geological Survey map displays the cluster of earthquakes to strike near Salina that raised questions about whether energy company fracking activities or the injection of wastewater into wells in that region contributed to the tremblors. (USGS/Kansas Reflector)

A U.S. Geological Survey map displays the cluster of earthquakes to strike near Salina that raised questions about whether energy company fracking activities or the injection of wastewater into wells in that region contributed to the tremblors. (USGS/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The 4.3 magnitude earthquake south of Salina in the first week of December was concerning enough hundreds of people contacted officials to report the home-rattling tremblor.

It turned out to be a precursor to more than a dozen quakes in the region that included a 4.0 at Gypsum and 3.5 at Assaria on Dec. 15, the Christmas surprise 2.0 in Marion, the 3.9 near Lindsborg and 3.3 at Salina on Sunday, and a triple-header Monday morning ranging from 2.5 to 2.8 on the perimeter of Salina.

This surge in earthquakes came to the attention of the Kansas Corporation Commission, which is responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry. The earthquakes also were noted by skeptics of waste-fluid injection and of hydraulic fracturing, which is a technique of expanding energy production by using wells to force fluids under pressure into bedrock formations.

Linda Berry, spokeswoman for the KCC, said the commission’s staff was working with the Kansas Geological Survey and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to investigate potential links between the latest earthquakes in Saline County and drilling or injection activity.

She said there had been no drilling in the past three months adjacent to the earthquakes south of Salina in central Kansas. That serves to rule out theories hydraulic fracturing directly induced the quakes, she said.

There are no KDHE-regulated Class I wastewater disposal wells within 15 miles of the earthquakes, Berry said. There are approximately 38 KCC-regulated Class II Arbuckle disposal wells within the 15-mile investigation area, she said.

“KCC staff has compiled the injection data for these wells dating back to 2015 and shared it with KGS and KDHE,” Berry said. “As we analyze this data, we will look for any patterns or trends that could be leading to the increased number of earthquakes.”

She said KCC had authority to request more detailed injection data from operators of the 38 wells and could take action to reduce or eliminate disposal at certain wells.

Joe Spease, chief executive officer of the WindSoHy, an Overland Park company involved in development of wind, hydrogen and energy storage projects, said disposal of waste fluids near Salina from elsewhere in Kansas or from other states could explain a flurry of earthquakes in Saline County.

“It has all the same identifiers that are associated with what I call ‘frackquakes,'” Spease said.

He said Kansas regulators were at a disadvantage because they relied on businesses to voluntarily report amounts and locations of fluids pumped underground through wells.

Earthquakes in Hutchinson, Hays and Salina bring urgency to questions about whether the KCC should expand limitations on wastewater injection and fracking, Spease said.

The Kansas Geological Survey has reported on links between induced seismicity and disposal of wastewater through injection wells. Research indicated fluids deposited at depth increased pressure along faults to a point where it overwhelmed frictional forces and triggered earthquakes.

In 2014, an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.8 shook parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter was near Conway Springs, which is about 25 miles southwest of Wichita. The KCC responded in 2015 with an order limiting waste fluid injection volume in the hardest hit counties in south-central Kansas. The regulatory action reduced incidence of earthquakes within that part of the state.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.