Kansas extending fracking limits over earthquakes

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Oil and gas industry restrictions meant to decrease the frequency and intensity of earthquakes in south-central Kansas will remain in place until at least March 2016, state regulators decided Thursday.

The Kansas Corporation Commission issued an order extending limits on the injection of wastewater into the ground by oil and natural gas producers during fracking. The limits, first imposed in March of this year, apply to five earthquake-prone areas in Harper and Sumner counties.

The restrictions had been set to expire in September, but the commission’s staff recommended continuing them after a drop in the number and intensity of earthquakes in the spring and summer. The restrictions will be revisited early next year, the order said, but they could stay in effect longer.

Both the commission’s staff and the Kansas Geological Survey have said there needs to be more study to determine whether limiting wastewater injection in the area is reducing seismic activity. The order described the restriction’s results thus far as “encouraging but inconclusive.”

“(The restrictions) will give us a better chance to observe the real impact,” said Ryan Hoffman, the director of the commission’s Conservation Division. “That will give us a bigger picture.”

More than 200 earthquakes have been recorded in Kansas since the start of 2013 after only five in the previous 10 years. Environmentalists believe hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is to blame because after reaching previously inaccessible oil and gas deposits, drillers inject large volumes of wastewater into disposal wells.

The number and intensity of earthquakes in the area peaked in this March, just as the KCC imposed its restrictions. Since then, the number of earthquakes have declined and none at or above magnitude 4.0 have happened since June. And, after no earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in July and only a relative handful in August and September, the state has recorded 11 in October.

The KCC’s staff also notes that drilling activity has declined this year with lower oil prices; from Jan. 1 through Sept. 2 of this year, drilling declined to 1,168 wells, compared with 3,797 for the same period in 2014.

Hoffman said it’s too early to tell how long the KCC’s staff will recommend keeping the restrictions in place, or whether it will suggest applying them to other areas.

But Commissioner Pat Apple said in a statement after the KCC’s meeting: “This is a very important issue for our state and particularly the residents of Harper and Sumner counties.”

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