Orlin Wagner/File/AP

In Kansas, some urge caution in linking fracking to earthquakes

Investigation by Kansas task force follows Ohio geologists directly linking hydraulic fracturing to seismic activity

Supporters of the oil and gas industry are urging a three-member, governor-appointed task force in Kansas to avoid jumping to conclusions in its study of whether fracking is causing a rise in earthquakes across the south-central region of the state.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of oil and gas extraction where a mix of water, sand and chemicals is shot into the ground at high pressure to release fossil fuels.

In the past seven months there have been 56 recorded earthquakes in Kansas — mostly in the south-central region. Drilling has increased there on the Mississippian formation, the potential of which industry experts have compared to North Dakota's Bakken shale region.

Though inconsistency in the number of monitoring stations in the state makes it difficult to know how that number stacks up against previous years, most observers agree Kansas is seeing more seismic activity than normal.

In other states that are reporting a rise in earthquakes, fracking has been identified by geologists as the most likely cause. In Ohio, for example, a recent report by state geologists directly linked earthquakes there to fracking. It was the first time a study by the state had come to that conclusion.

Still, supporters of the oil and gas industry say there is not enough evidence to blame fracking for the Kansas quakes.

"In Kansas, there's no evidence that the earthquakes are being caused by fracking," said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey. 

There has been speculation that the fracking process is injecting too much salt water — nearly 7.5 barrels for every barrel of oil collected, with a higher rate for gas — into disposal wells and creating pressure on faults.

The Kansas state task force created to investigate the increasing numbers of earthquakes met Wednesday with about 85 stakeholders at Newman University in Wichita. In addition to Buchanan, the other committee members are Kim Christiansen, executive director of the Kansas Corporation Commission, and Mike Tate, chief of the Bureau of Water for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"There is no silver bullet to induced seismicity," Hal Macartney, a geo-science adviser for the petroleum industry, told the group. "Earthquakes are unpredictable."

The oil and gas industry employs 67,000 in Kansas and provides $5 billion in wages to employers and producers, said Ed Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association. With that kind of economic impact, supporters are nervous about the possibility of additional regulations.

The task force will sort through comments from its various meetings and present recommendations to Gov. Sam Brownback sometime this summer. A lack of data has become an issue for the task force. Kansas has a 25-year gap with very few seismic monitors. 

"Until we get more information and data, coming up with an action plan is going to be really kind of hard," Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a Coldwater Republican, said after the meeting.

'Earthquake swarms'

To the south of Kansas, in Oklahoma, residents have complained of an increasing number of tremors, including what they term "earthquake swarms." Many of the earthquakes reported took place in areas with heavy oil and gas activities.

"We've statistically analyzed the recent earthquake rate changes and found that they do not seem to be due to random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates," Bill Leith, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist said in a press release in October 2013.

Since January 2009, more than 200 magnitude 3.0 or greater earthquakes have occurred in central Oklahoma, marking a significant rise, according to USGS. The agency said their studies show the average number of earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher annually in Oklahoma jumped from three between 1975 and 2008 to 40 from 2009 to mid-2013.

In Ohio, after geologists released their recent report, State Oil & Gas Chief Rick Simmers told the Associated Press he thought the link between fracking and earthquakes there was "probable."

While earlier studies had linked earthquakes in the same region to deep-injection wells used for disposal of fracking wastewater, this marks the first time tremors in the region have been directly tied to fracking. In response, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources issued new permit conditions for companies drilling near known faults or seismic activity. 

The fracking industry has boomed in states across the U.S. in the past few years, with supporters saying it makes the country energy-independent and creates jobs. But critics argue not enough is being done to protect the health and safety of residents who live near drilling sites. In addition to risk of earthquakes, researchers have shown fracking activities can lead to illness in nearby residents.

Many studies have identified associations between fracking and elevated levels of toxic compounds in the surrounding environment, a report released Wednesday by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Weill Cornell medical College concluded.

A number of compounds known to be toxic to humans — including bezene, a known cancer-inducer — are associated with fracking, and have been found in elevated concentrations in air, surface waters, and aquifers, the review, "Environmental Public Health Dimensions of Shale and Tight Gas Development" — published on Environmental Health Perspective, said.

Water contamination is also a real risk, according to the study. An increased number of birth defects was observed in heavily-drilled areas in Colorado state, according to a report released by the Colorado School of Public Health in January.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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