Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kansas panel will examine whether injection of fracking fluids is causing small earthquakes

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has assigned a committee to determine whether or not deep injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas is connected with the recent bout of small earthquakes in a part of Kansas that doesn't often have them, Dion Lefler writes for The Wichita Eagle. "Recent seismic activity in south-central Kansas has raised concerns that fluid injection might be related," Brownback said in a statement.

"It's not the fracking itself; it's this re-injection of the fluids into formations that are considered safe to hold it," Don Blakeman, a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., told Lefler. "It's waste disposal."

Fracking injects water and chemicals underground, and saltwater comes up along with the gas and oil. The water and used fluids are then pumped underground elsewhere. Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey and an appointee to the governor's panel, told Lefler that if the disposal process is to blame for the quakes, the main problem is likely the more volumnious saltwater. Sometimes reinjection "seems to change the pressure environment on subsurface faults," making them slip, he said. "There's a lot of complex physics going on down there."

In two months, Caldwell, which is near the Kansas-Oklahoma state line, experienced three earthquakes ranging in magnitdue from 3.3. to 3.9. "By Kansas standards, that's a good earthquake," Buchanan said. The debate about the potential correlation between fracking and quakes is a hot topic in adjoining Oklahoma, where gas and oil production is even more common. The Sooner State has had some earthquakes in the 5.6 range, and that's quite serious—even for a place like California that gets a lot of quakes, Buchanan told Lefler.

Determining the cause of a quake is not easy, said Blakeman, who works in the center's locating unit. "It takes a lot more study, typically more instruments on the ground and collaboration with companies to know when they're re-injecting fluids and so forth, so you can tell the timeline," he said. This is one type of study Brown's committee will examine, Buchanan said. The committee's first meeting will be on April 16 at Wichita State University's Eugene M. Hughes Metropolitan Complex. Buchanan said that by that time, he hopes the committee will have drafted a plan for stakeholders to look over, Lefler writes. (Read more)

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