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Officials In Douglas County Seek Changes In Kansas’ Review Of Saltwater Injection Wells

Courtesy Kansas Geological Survey
Saltwater injection wells, like this in southeast Kansas, are gaining more attention from Kansans concerned about their potential effects.

The governments of Douglas County and Lawrence are calling for changes to Kansas regulations amid an energy company’s proposal to pump wastewater into wells in rural Eudora.

Among their concerns, the local officials argue that the public deserves a 60-day protest period — twice as long as the current allowance — when companies seek to operate such wells in or near their communities.

Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said the goal is “good public process.”

In its current format, she said, “the process itself is really weighted against the ability of the citizens to be heard.”

The county and city say a longer public comment period would better suit the schedules of city and county commissioners, so that they can study any potential effects and discuss them during their public meetings.

Local governments don’t have authority to block applications by oil and gas companies to build and operate fluid injection wells within their boundaries — that power rests with the Kansas Corporation Commission. But, like members of the public, they can view application materials and file letters of protest.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the county wants more time and information to determine whether a proposal by Florida-based Midstates Energy Operating LLC to operate two wells poses any risks for water contamination or earthquakes.

“We think that as government officials we have an obligation to make sure when something like this is done, it’s done in a way that it protects the public,” Weinaug said. “So we are asking, ‘What has the Corporation Commission done to make those determinations?’ And once we get an answer on what they have done, we’d like a chance to question it, add additional information, so we can decide whether they’ve done a good job in protecting our interests.”

Public concern

In the latest example of growing public interest in saltwater injection, Lawrence and Douglas County officials sent a joint letter last week to the KCC.

Read the letter to the Kansas Corporation Commission from Lawrence and Douglas County officials.

Saltwater injection consists of pouring — with or without pressurization — brine down a well either to dispose of it or to assist in extracting oil and gas. The saltwater is wastewater that is itself churned up in the course of oil or gas production and can contain chemicals.

A spike in earthquakes in Oklahoma and south-central Kansas in recent years has fueled public concerns about saltwater injection because geophysicists have pinned a rise in seismic activity on saltwater disposal wells.

In some parts of that region, operators can inject upwards of 15,000 barrels of brine into each well per day. Since 2009, thousands of temblors with a magnitude of 2.7 or higher — meaning quakes strong enough to be felt by people — have struck the region.

Wells are marked active or inactive based on whether they reported saltwater injection in 2016, the most current data available. EOR (enhanced oil recovery) wells inject saltwater to help extract oil. SWD (saltwater disposal) wells inject saltwater to get rid of it. Data source: Kansas Corporation Commission. Map: Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service.

The permits sought by Midstates Energy in Douglas County are for extraction rather than disposal wells, according to documents filed with the KCC. The company is seeking to inject 100 barrels of brine per day into the two wells to assist in oil or gas production.

Bruce Presgrave, a USGS supervisory geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado, said it’s impossible to know whether a proposed saltwater injection site will cause earthquakes. In some places, higher-volume wells don’t cause quakes, while lower-volume wells in other locations do.

“There’s no magic formula that works everywhere,” Presgrave said. “That’s part of the problem.”

However, higher volumes correlate with higher risk of seismicity. The USGS also says saltwater wells used for disposal purposes are more likely to cause earthquakes than their extraction-related counterparts.

Local geological characteristics, such as proximity to fault lines, also play a role. Overall, most saltwater injection wells are not linked to earthquakes.

Presgrave said there is “a growing body of evidence” that state regulators and oil companies can reduce impact by monitoring wells and adjusting or cutting off injection as needed — though the extent to which states and companies do this can vary.

“With some care, this can be worked with, and the hazard can be mitigated,” he said, “and still achieve the economic issue of being able to get the oil out and do something with the fluid.”

Flint Hills well approved

In recent months, residents of the Flint Hills fought plans for a saltwater disposal well near the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

They failed to block a bid from Quail Oil & Gas for a permit, but their effort grew into a broader campaign to engage the public in monitoring and protesting any new applications that companies file for saltwater injection in their region.

“We think that as government officials we have an obligation to make sure when something like this is done, it’s done in a way that it protects the public.” — Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug

The protestors also are lobbying legislators for changes to state law, arguing that the state’s current regulatory framework doesn’t require the KCC to factor in seismicity risks when reviewing well applications.

In its September decision allowing the Flint Hills well to proceed, the KCC concluded protestors hadn’t proven any “immediate danger” to public health, safety or welfare.

But the protestors argue Kansas should take a more proactive stance. They fear faulty wells or unscrupulous dumping could contaminate local freshwater and argue that Kansas failed to rein in saltwater disposal in south-central parts of the state until earthquakes had become a frequent occurrence. In recent years, the KCC has capped daily injection volumes in parts of that region.

Midstates Energy notice

On Oct. 9, Midstates Energy published notices in the Lawrence Journal-World to meet legal requirements for informing the public of its plans. Its applications are still pending with the KCC.

The notices said residents had 15 days to file any protests against the company’s two wells, setting an Oct. 24 deadline.

On Friday a KCC spokeswoman said the company’s notice was incorrect, because the legal public comment period should be 30 days. The agency is contacting Midstates to let the company know it will need to redo the public notification process.

State regulations require companies planning injection activities to publish a notice in the county’s designated newspaper, in addition to notifying the local landowner and any well operators or owners of mineral rights within half a mile.

Midstates didn’t return a call seeking comment. The Florida company registered in Kansas in September, according to filings with the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office.

In addition to Midstates’ pending applications for Douglas County wells, records on the Kansas Geological Survey website indicate the company received permits this month to drill three injection wells in Franklin County, south of Douglas County.

Thellman said Douglas County’s decision to contact the KCC about the two wells there came amid calls and emails from constituents worried about the environmental risks.

“Certainly the word has spread — word of mouth, social media, environmental organizations,” she said. “I continue to get lots of emails and phone calls. It’s gotten quite a bit of attention.”

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.

I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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