More earthquakes in Kansas means new panel for research

Published On: Apr 16 2014 05:29:11 PM CDT   Updated On: Jul 29 2014 07:50:21 AM CDT

There have been more than 60 earthquakes recorded in southern Kansas in the past year. So many, in fact, a panel created by Gov. Sam Brownback aims to look into whether there may be a connection between seismic activity and Kansas oil and gas industry.

During a meeting in Wichita Wednesday, the Seismicity State Task Force learned what the recent earthquake activity could mean for the state. Dozens of people heard from two seismologists from the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Rex Buchanan, the interim director of the task force, said they are in the learning phase of trying to know as much as possible about "induced seismicity."

"Kansas is an area that has some seismic activity, but not like California or Oklahoma, so trying to respond to an issue that you don't typically have to respond to is a little bit about what's going on here," he said. 

Oklahoma has seen more seismic activity already this year, then all of 2013 which set their record.

The Geological Survey there has looked into the possibility of human induced earthquakes, more specifically involving a process called waste water disposal.

"It has long been recognized by scientists that both fluid injection and withdrawal in the subsurface can trigger earthquakes by altering conditions on naturally occurring faults that are near failure," according to an article posted on the Oklahoma Geological Survey's website. The article goes on to state that more "definitive data and conclusions from these models should be tested."

The same kinds of studies are being worked on here in Kansas where there's a lot of oil and gas activity and has been more many decades.

"In Kansas we've been disposing of salt water for 40, 50, 60 years," said Buchanan. "So why now think salt water might be causing induced seismicity? Well with some of the activity we've seen especially in Oklahoma, you've seen larger volumes of water then we've historically seen and some of these horizontal wells are extremely productive in terms of salt water. So in some locations we are putting more salt water back in the ground even from 10 years ago. That's one possible explanation, but again the jury's still out."

All of the presenters Wednesday shared similarities to that though. There is a possibility that some of the earthquakes we are seeing in Oklahoma and Kansas could have been caused by waste water injection, but more research and data is needed before making a positive connection between the two.

"It's an increase in pore pressure that allows a fault to move," said Buchanan, about how waste water injection could cause an earthquake. "It might be near a stress point and about to rupture anyway and that little increase in pore pressure may allow that fault to move."

The presenters also talked about the process of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. That is a way oil and gas companies are able to fracture shale many miles below the surface and draw oil and gas from the rock to the surface. In regards to that, those who presented Wednesday said the risk of induced seismicity is very small.

The panel has written up an initial draft for a state action plan, but will get together again in 30 days to rework it. Wednesday, small groups of all who attended the meeting met to write down ideas of what should be said if induced seismicity is to blame for at least some of the quakes we've had lately. Then, they'll more than likely have another comment period, get together once again, before taking the draft to the governor's office.