A decade ago, Kansans felt an earthquake once every few years. Now ground tremors come regularly. One of the hardest hit areas is Harper County in the south central part of the state.
It’s no coincidence, scientists and state regulators agree, that Harper and Sumner counties are also where massive amounts of wastewater has been pumped below ground by outfits drilling for oil and natural gas.
Right in the middle of the heart of Kansas’ earthquake problem is the city of Anthony, Kansas. The mayor, Greg Cleveland, also happens to be an insurance agent.
“I would have never thought, in my life, that I’d be selling earthquake insurance,” he said. “Man, I tell you when those first few hit, I mean, our office just went nuts.”
Between March and August of 2015, more than 2.3 billion gallons of wastewater were pumped back into the ground in Harper and Sumner counties. That’s enough to fill about 3,608 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Still, the debate about what’s causing the earthquakes, and how to prevent more, rages on.
Scientists know that wastewater injection wells can cause earthquakes, but only if the conditions are right. They say many solutions proposed by environmentalists are too broad.
And even though geophysicists are beginning to better understand what spots might be vulnerable to earthquakes, predictions are never fully certain.
Regulations the Kansas Corporation Commission uses to evaluate new well applications don’t take into account the likelihood of it causing an earthquake either. Regulators are focused mainly on preventing one of the state’s more than 4,500 injection wells from contaminating fresh water.
So there’s no rule that demands action be taken to avoid earthquakes until they are already happening.
Cleveland said his company’s never paid out on earthquake insurance claims because coverage only applies to catastrophic damage -- things such as the collapse of an entire wall. Cracks in walls and foundations just aren’t that big of a deal. It’s also difficult to prove an earthquake caused them and that it’s not just the regular settling of an old house.
A proposal in the Kansas Legislature to require wastewater injection well operators to carry liability insurance likely wouldn’t lead to payouts either.
“It was super alarming, and very scary at first,” said Jan Lanie, an Anthony city commissioner. “Then we kind of got used to it.”
Even with the earthquakes, she said, it was hard to not like the economic development the oil and gas boom was creating in her town.
It’s a trade-off many in the region welcome.
“If it hadn’t have been for the oil that we had and some of the money that the farmers were able to get, it could have been pretty tough for this county,” said Gwen Warner, executive director of the Anthony Chamber of Commerce.
At first, Warner worried about the earthquakes, too. But, like others in Anthony, she eventually got used to them. She’s also felt significantly fewer quakes since the Kansas Corporation Commission put a cap on the amount of wastewater that could be injected into the area. She said she thinks they’re doing a good job of addressing the known problems.
The Kansas Geological Survey has found that since the restrictions went into place in Harper County, the number of detected earthquakes has dropped by more than half. From September 2015 to February 2016 the affected area saw 2,263 earthquakes. During that same period spanning 2016-2017, the number of earthquakes dropped to 668.
“What that order showed was that with targeted regulation, that we can have an impact,” said Rick Miller, senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey.
But not everyone is happy with how the KCC is handling the issue.
Cindy Hoedel, who lives in a small town in Chase County in the Flint Hills, became concerned with the issue after she felt an earthquake shake her home. She lives more than 100 miles from the epicenter of most of the earthquakes. But when a company wanted to put a wastewater injection well just North of her home, she and a group of friends filed a protest with the KCC.
They didn’t really know what they were doing, however, and ended up losing.
The group needed to show that the well was an immediate threat to the public. Without a history of seismic activity nearby, the commissioners decided it wasn’t.
The defeat didn’t discourage Hoedel. In many ways, it emboldened her group.
“We know that they’re causing earthquakes,” Hoedel said. “So, I would like to see these wells shut down. … I’m not convinced the damage is being mitigated or prevented.”
Hoedel’s group has begun protesting as many wells as their limited resources allow. They’ve also been lobbying the legislature to make changes to how the KCC regulates injections wells. That includes a bill that would expand the injection limits in Harper County statewide.
But Miller, with the Kansas Geological Survey, says that isn’t necessary. The ground isn’t shaking in western Kansas, where huge amounts of wastewater injection is also happening.
“It all has to do with the geology,” he said.
The Kansas Geological Survey continues to monitor earthquakes around the state and are beginning to gain a better understanding of where people should and shouldn’t put new wastewater injection wells.
Miller said that he’d recommend against giving a permit to anybody who wants to put a disposal well where they have already seen a lot of seismic activity.
Brian Grimmett is an energy and environment reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.
Coverage of energy and the environment is made possible in part by ITC Great Plains and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.