Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback made the right move this week in appointing a panel to look into whether and to what extent fracking is contributing to the minor earthquakes that have occurred in south-central Kansas.
Several earthquakes, minor by California standards, with magnitudes of 3.3 to 3.9, have occurred in recent months near Caldwell, along the Kansas-Oklahoma border. In Oklahoma, where there is more oil and gas drilling, tremors with a magnitude of 5.6 have been recorded.
The task force’s purpose is to determine whether the tremors are natural occurrences or are associated with human activity —fracking or the increase in oil and gas production and the disposal of fluids associated with fracking. As the governor said, “This is a matter of public safety.”
In fracking, high pressure is used to inject water and chemicals deep underground to break up — fracture — rock layers and open up pockets of oil and gas that once were unrecoverable. In addition to the oil and gas, large quantities of saltwater are brought to the surface; that and waste fluids are then pumped back underground.
It’s considered possible that the reinjection of the saltwater is contributing to the tremors, though liquids have been reinjected without causing seismic activity. Why that seems to be occurring in south-central Kansas is one of the areas the governor’s panel will look into.
Ed Cross, president of he Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, acknowledges that the injection wells in the area might be linked to the seismic activity, but was adamant that fracking is not a factor. “There’s no shadow of a doubt that it doesn’t have anything to do with fracking,” he said. “Hydraulic fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes.”
Fracking has become increasingly popular in the United States and other countries in recent years. Its long-term impact on the environment, however, is unknown. Groundwater has become contaminated near some fracking areas in other states, and environmentalists, at the very least, insist on more research before further fracking is undertaken.
The working group’s members were well chosen. They include Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey; Mike Tate, chief of the water bureau of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment; and Kim Christiansen, executive director of the Kansas Corporation Commission. Among items they will focus on are public safety and environmental and economic issues.
They must be both objective and thorough. And although their work will take some time, Kansans will look forward to their report.