The fight over an oil-related waste disposal well in Kansas’ Flint Hills has broadened into a campaign to protest similar wells across several counties and lobby lawmakers for regulatory changes.
Last month residents of Chase, Morris and other counties known for their rolling topography, open pastures and tallgrass ecology lost their effort to block operation of a saltwater injection well near Strong City and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Matfield Green resident Cindy Hoedel, one of those who opposed the Morris County well, said petitioners will not appeal the decision issued Sept. 21 by the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC), the state’s energy-regulating body.
Doing so would be “fruitless,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any chance that they would change their minds.”
But, she said, residents are scouring local newspapers for legally required public notices for plans of additional wastewater disposal wells across several counties.
“It’s our full intention to fight every one of them,” Hoedel said.
They already have filed protest letters against another application for saltwater injection — this one near Hamilton in Greenwood County south of Emporia.
Robert Vincze, an attorney representing Quail Oil & Gas, which will operate the Morris County well, said the protesters’ decision not to appeal is “good news.”
“We believe that it was a good result for all involved,” he said of the recent KCC order.
Vincze had argued to the KCC during an August hearing that Quail’s application met all the state’s criteria and protesters failed to give any valid reasons for rejecting it.
The KCC ultimately agreed.
Energy companies use saltwater injection wells to dispose of wastewater churned up in the course of producing oil and natural gas. The liquid is primarily brine but also can contain chemicals.
Saltwater injection wells are commonly confused with fracking — a technique of injecting water and chemicals into the earth to extract natural gas or oil — but the processes are different. The U.S. Geological Survey says a proliferation of wastewater disposal wells is behind the spike in earthquakes that have rattled Oklahoma and south-central Kansas in recent years.
Since 2008, more than 5,000 temblors strong enough for people to feel have struck Kansas and Oklahoma.
The U.S. Geological Survey has responded with annual seismicity reports, the most recent of which concluded that parts of the region now face risks similar to those in earthquake-prone California.
At the same time, geologists say most saltwater injection wells are not linked to earthquakes. The Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association also points to such findings in industry-funded research.
Geologists say the risk for a given well to trigger quakes depends on factors including proximity to faults and other geological characteristics, as well as daily injection volumes and pressurization.
Morris, Chase and surrounding counties do not have a history of temblors with local epicenters, but residents of the area have been able to feel the shaking from quakes that strike farther south.
Some fear that oil and gas operators will install more wells in their region after the KCC capped daily disposal volumes in south-central Kansas to stem the quakes there — a measure that appeared to have effect. They worry the advent of more wells would trigger epicenters in their direct vicinity or that faulty wells or unscrupulous wastewater disposal practices could contaminate groundwater.
In the Quail Oil case, the KCC concluded it can only act in limited circumstances, including “to prevent or avoid the immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare,” and that the protestors hadn’t proven such a danger, either regarding earthquakes or water contamination.
The Quail Oil well will not set precedent in the Flint Hills. Morris and its neighboring counties already have scores of active saltwater injection wells.
Quail Oil, a company with a Garden City post office box address, received permission to dump up to 5,000 barrels of wastewater a day.
Vincze argued 5,000 barrels was not a large volume compared to wells in south-central Kansas that can dump thousands more barrels per day. Some can dump more than three times as much.
However, Flint Hills residents presented testimony from James Aber, Emporia State University professor emeritus of geology, suggesting further proliferation of saltwater wells in the area ultimately could trigger quakes, as eventually happened in Oklahoma and south-central Kansas, because the area is riddled with faults.
The KCC decision has the grassroots group of Flint Hills protesters planning to seek regulatory changes through the Kansas Legislature.
Hoedel said her concern is that no agency in Kansas is tasked with proactively guarding the state, its residents and property owners against activities that cause earthquakes. She and others argue the KCC only capped wastewater disposal in south-central Kansas after temblors had become frequent.
“We don’t find it a satisfactory answer to drill, cause damage and then try to mitigate the damage,” Hoedel said.
In May, 30 state lawmakers — 28 Democrats and two Republicans — wrote to the KCC expressing concern about Quail Oil’s Morris County well. They urged the body to “err on the side of caution,” lest the Flint Hills begin to see temblors, too.
“Man-induced earthquakes are a relatively new phenomenon,” they wrote. “What is the tipping point of risk?”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.