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Fracking's New Angle In Kansas

A natural gas drill high on a hilltop over Marcellus Shale deposits in the eastern U.S. Shale-gas production is booming across the country, driven in part by the expanded use of a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
A natural gas drill high on a hilltop over Marcellus Shale deposits in the eastern U.S. Shale-gas production is booming across the country, driven in part by the expanded use of a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

After finding success and controversy in other states, horizontal fracking is bringing a new angle to the oil and gas business in Kansas, along with environmental concerns.

“It’s just now starting here in Kansas. We probably have a handful of horizontal drilling operations currently going on, but we anticipate that to grow,” said Doug Louis, director of the conservation division with the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

Statistics from the Kansas Geological Survey show 66 horizontal well permits have been issued in 2011, more than the last three years combined.

Louis said northwest and south-central Kansas are seeing the most interest in horizontal fracking, which cracks open layers of rock across the horizon with a mix of water, sand and chemicals, releasing trapped oil and natural gas.

Fracking itself — also called hydraulic fracturing — is not new to Kansas, which was the site of the country’s first vertical fracking in 1947. With more than 57,000 wells fracked in the state, vertical fracking has helped make Kansas the 8th largest oil and gas producing state.

But it’s new techniques, allowing a horizontal approach, that’s spurring the latest boom in oil and natural gas exploration across the country.

The “horizontal” interest in Kansas comes as the Environmental Protection Agency begins a national study on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. And in early December, an EPA report indicated that fracking may have contributed to polluted groundwater in Wyoming.

Fracking has drawn public protests in the northeast U.S., but Kansas Geological Survey interim director Rex Buchanan said the production area in Kansas is not the same.

“The geologic setting in Kansas is very different than it is in Pennsylvania and New York, so the kinds of concerns that people might have back there are very different than the kinds of concerns they might have here,” Buchanan said.

Still, groundwater contamination is a concern. The Ogallala Aquifer supplies irrigation and domestic water for a large portion of western Kansas, where much of the states’ agriculture output lies.

Joe Spease, with the Sierra Club of Kansas, said the environmental organization isn’t anti-fracking, but members do want common sense regulations to protect land owners and natural resources from contamination.

“With horizontal drilling there’s a lot less certainty where the gas is going to go and where the fractures are happening,” Spease said.

Spease chairs the organization’s Hydraulic Fracturing Committee, initially set up to back natural gas as a more environmentally friendly energy source than coal. He said that after learning more about horizontal drilling and its potential problems, the focus shifted.

The Sierra Club is hoping to work with the Kansas Legislature early next year to introduce further regulation that includes pre-drilling water samples and full disclosure of the chemicals used.

“If there is even the slightest risk to the water supplies in Kansas we would have to say hold on, we don’t want to risk destroying our farming and ranching here,” Spease said.

But Buchanan said there’s little chance of that across the Ogallala. Horizontal fracking occurs thousands of feet underground, below the aquifer table, which sits only a couple hundred feet down.

“By and large when you’ve got that much distance and that many relatively tight rock layers, like shale, in between the frack job and the Ogallala, that’s generally one of the things you can rely on to make sure the fluids don’t move that far,” Buchanan said.

And Louis, at the Kansas Corporation Commission, said state regulations have evolved with the industry to protect natural resources.

“We don’t have any recorded contamination cases from hydraulic fracturing in the state,” he said. “I truly believe the record speaks for itself.”

If fracking does pick up in Kansas, concerns about water use will likely draw greater attention. Each frack job uses millions of gallons from the non-renewable aquifer critics believe it could contaminate.

This story was produced by Harvest Public Media.

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