KANSAS CITY, Mo. – So many earthquakes rumble through south-central Kansas these days that the Harper County Herald charts them in each week’s edition the way some papers run baseball box scores.
They run on page 12. Right next to the oil and gas industry news as a not-so-subtle reminder that there’s a likely connection between the quakes and an upswing in drilling operations.
“For a while there, every day, several times a day it was shaking,” said Herald editor-in-chief Kate Catlin.
However, since Kansas imposed new rules two weeks ago on the energy industry aimed at reducing suspected man-made earthquakes in Harper and neighboring Sumner counties, people are noticing a difference.
“We are not having as many as we had,” said Harper County clerk Cheryl Adelhardt
The respite could be a mere coincidence, said Rex Buchanan, interim director at the Kansas Geological Survey, who believes it’s way too early to make any determination.
“This earthquake activity is like the stock market,” he said. “It fluctuates.”
For its part, the gas and oil industry also says the science is inconclusive about fracking and quakes.
But for the folks whose houses along the Kansas-Oklahoma border have been shaking with some regularity since late 2013, the connection seems clear.
The perceived falloff in quakes, they believe, coincides with the recent Kansas Corporation Commission decision to limit some oil and gas production-related activity in Harper and Sumner counties.
“I don’t think anyone really doubts that there is a connection between the production and the seismic activity,” said Phil Unruh, a local attorney who says the quakes sometimes startle him awake at night.
To Unruh and others contacted in Harper County this week, the evidence has been irrefutable.
Before the fracking boom, there had been two earthquakes of 2.0 magnitude or greater in Harper and Sumner counties in 35 years.
But since production ramped up in 2013 and through the middle of January, there were 138.
Many were so weak you could hardly feel them. Others were strong enough to rattle the dishes, crack walls and toss objects to the floor.
Recently, the bill for fixing the courthouse steps in Anthony, Kan., tripled to more than $1 million, due in part to earthquake damage.
And yet as common as the temblors have become, state officials had still been reluctant to point fingers at what they see as a “cornerstone industry” that generates $4.3 billion in economic activity across the state.
The road to last month’s action was a long one.
After a flurry of quakes in late 2013 and early 2014, Gov. Sam Brownback appointed a task force to look into possible causes. Eight months later, the panel issued its report.
It found no conclusive evidence to suggest a direct link between the quakes and the energy industry’s practice of injecting millions of gallons of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations into underground rock formations.
In Harper County, where the most seismic activity has occurred, the volume of wastewater injected in wells rose from just under 10 million barrels in 2010 to 52 million in 2013.
Clearly, fracking-related quakes were possible, the Induced Seismicity State Task Force acknowledged. Harper County does, after all, sit on a fault zone, and scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey have long believed that flooding those fissures with fluids can induce earthquakes.
But the only action recommended was increased monitoring.
That did not sit well with Frank Smith, whose farmhouse outside Bluff City has been shaking off and on since December 2013.
“When Brownback came to Harper,” Smith says, “his intervention consisted solely of putting out more seismographs to measure quakes, rather than dealing with reduction of the quakes themselves.
“I suggested that would be like hiring more coroners to deal with Mafia hits.”
So Smith, who calls himself a lifelong public policy activist, filed a protest last November with the Kansas Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry.
Now he’s being hailed as something of a hero in Harper County.
Drillers are now subject to new limits on the amount of wastewater they can inject into the ground below Harper and Sumner counties.
No more than 25,000 barrels of that saltwater brine per day in most areas. Stricter limits are in effect on dozens of injection wells in five zones where seismic activity has been the greatest, down to 8,000 barrels.
The KCC’s order was not in direct response to Smith’s challenge to one drilling company’s request for permits for two new injection wells near his home. They weren’t even the kind of wells identified with quakes.
But because the March 19 order came within hours of the hearing on Smith’s case, the connection seemed as obvious to observers as the link between earthquakes and wastewater injections from fracking operations.
“This is an enormous change,” Smith said.
Enormous because for the first time, a Kansas state agency acknowledged a possible public health and safety threat posed by the wastewater wells that the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have been warning about.
“What the KCC did there is a big deal,” Buchanan said.
Already, activists south of the Kansas border are citing it in their attempts to get Oklahoma officials to put limits on fracking operations there. Oklahoma now leads California with the most recorded earthquakes of 3.0 and above in the United States.
The difference is that most California quakes are naturally occurring, while most of the earthquakes in Oklahoma and the rest of the nation’s midsection are thought by some to be induced by deposits into wastewater injection wells.
Induced quakes, mostly below 5 magnitude, are generally not capable of causing major damage and loss of life.
But scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are studying whether these small earthquakes could set off larger ones.
“So far, there is no conclusive example linking injection operations to triggering of major earthquakes,” the USGS says. “However we cannot eliminate this possibility.”
The eight companies with large volume wells affected by the Kansas Corporation Commission ruling have until later this month to request a hearing.
The producer with the vast majority of those wells, SandRidge Exploration and Production LLC, declined comment when asked whether it is planning to ask for such a hearing. The second-largest, Tapstone Energy LLC, did not respond to a request for comment.
But the head of an industry group said the debate is far from over in Kansas on the question of whether energy production is setting off earthquakes that witnesses say still roar across the prairie like thunder.
“I certainly can understand that people living in that area have great concerns,” said Ed Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association.
“But there is no fact-based correlation. It’s like every time one of those events happened, the sun rose in the east.”