Residents of the Flint Hills on Wednesday took a fight against an oil company to Kansas energy regulators as part of their broader battle to stem wastewater disposal in the area.
They fear that a request from Quail Oil and Gas to jettison up to 5,000 barrels a day of brine near Strong City and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve brings a risk for earthquakes or contamination of local groundwater — claims that the company disputes.
An hours-long hearing in Topeka saw the two sides pit their lawyers and geologists against each other in hopes of winning over the three members of the Kansas Corporation Commission.
The commissioners will likely issue their decision within a couple months.
Fossil fuel companies churn up saltwater in the course of oil and gas production and dispose of it in wells by pouring or pumping it downward with pressure.
The vast majority of saltwater disposal wells are not linked to earthquakes, but Oklahoma and south-central Kansas have suffered temblors for years that stem from the high volume of saltwater injection in that area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 2009, that area has seen thousands of earthquakes strong enough for people to feel, and some have caused damage.
Part of the controversy over Quail Oil’s request in Morris County is whether the central Kansas Flint Hills are susceptible to quakes, too. Flint Hills residents who oppose Quail Oil’s application fear companies could turn increasingly to their region, opting to dig wells there since the KCC has placed caps on daily injection rates in counties farther south and west in an effort to curb the temblors.
Researchers say it’s impossible to know for certain whether a given well could cause quakes but that a wide range of factors — such as disposal volumes, pressurization and proximity to faults in the earth — come into play. Higher disposal volumes appear more closely linked to earthquakes.
Quail Oil argued Wednesday that the daily disposal volume it seeks is significantly lower than the injection rates allowed in the quake-prone south-central Kansas counties where the KCC has imposed restrictions. Additionally, the company argued that Morris County doesn’t have a history of seismic activity.
“In the area that we are, there’s been no earthquakes, and there’s been injection for a very long period of time,” Quail Oil manager Wray Valentine testified.
Valentine’s company has finished building the 2,700-foot-deep well where it plans to inject wastewater, but it needs permission from the commissioners to begin its dumping.
An unexpected moment came late in Wednesday’s hearing when KCC staff, who previously had recommended that commissioners approve the application, walked back from that position, calling instead for lower disposal volumes and pressurization than Quail Oil requested.
The new recommendation would halve the permissible pressure to 250 pounds per square inch and cut daily wastewater dumping to 2,000 barrels.
Bob Eye, an attorney representing the Flint Hills residents who oppose the project, asked the commissioners to reject the application or consider barring the company from using any pressure in wastewater disposal.
Relying on testimony from Emporia State geology professor emeritus James Aber, Eye warned that the area around Quail Oil’s newly built disposal well is “riddled with faults.”
Quail Oil’s attorney, Robert Vincze, put on the stand geologist Lee Shobe, an industry consultant who helped the company prepare its original application. Shobe testified that the geological characteristics in the Morris County area are well-suited for safe saltwater injection.
Most of the saltwater disposal wells in Morris County and its surrounding counties are not pressurized, according to data from the KCC. There are about 120 saltwater disposal wells in that region.
Cindy Hoedel, a resident of Matfield Green in neighboring Chase County, was among the Flint Hills residents asking the commissioners to reject Quail Oil’s request.
Hoedel recalled feeling her bed shaking and lifting from the floor during an Oklahoma quake that struck early one morning in September 2016 and shook the earth hundreds of miles away.
“My husband and I both moved toward the center of the bed,” she said. “It was really frightening.”
Hoedel said she worries about much stronger effects if saltwater injection operations eventually begin triggering epicenters closer to her home.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.