Frack or Fiction: The Quake Controversy - KCTV5

Frack or Fiction: The Quake Controversy

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BURLINGTON, KS (KCTV) -

Fears over earthquakes and the potential damage they might cause to the Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Burlington are fueling new controversy over the practice of drilling for gas and oil known as horizontal hydraulic fracking.

Every "frac" job in Kansas creates millions of gallons of water too toxic to be cleaned. To dispose of it, oil and gas companies drill a second well where the waste water is injected back into the ground, as deep as two to four miles beneath the earth's surface. It is those wastewater wells shaking up the debate between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry in Kansas.

"If there was an earthquake near that plant that shook it and released any of that radioactive material, the prevailing winds from Kansas would blow that radioactive contaminated air directly towards the Kansas City urban area," said Joe Spease, environmentalist and energy co-chair for Sierra Club Kansas.

In several states where the number of fracking sites and subsequent injection wells has increased, seismic activity is also on the rise. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey discovered a "remarkable increase" in earthquakes registering 3.0 or greater on the Richter scale in the central part of the United States.

"They (Arkansas) had more earthquakes in 2010 than in the prior 100 years combined," Spease said. "We're seeing earthquakes in Colorado at levels that we had never seen before in recorded history."

While these unusual swarms of earthquakes did shake up some major oil and gas-producing states, none were centered in Kansas. Ed Cross, chief lobbyist and spokesman for the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, pointed out that the last tremor to rattle the Sunflower State registered a 2.7 on the Richter scale, four years ago.

"In Kansas, we have 18,000 injection wells and we've been injecting, and across the nation, they've been injecting and disposing of water for decades with very little or any earthquakes associated with that," Cross said.

"As we continue to explore for oil and gas and we're successful, there's going to be a high up tick in injections wells," KCTV5 investigative reporter Stacey Cameron said. "Aren't we going to increase the threat of earthquakes here in Kansas?"

"No I don't think so," Cross said. "We have a good idea in Kansas where we're putting the water and what's there."

While Cross was quick to dismiss the connection between fracking injection wells and earthquakes, Oklahoma geologist and man-made earthquake expert, Austin Holland, took a more measured stance.

"We have known for a long time that deep injection can cause earthquakes," Holland said. "And there are some good classic examples, and some more recent examples of injection wells triggering earthquakes."

Among those recent examples is a 4.0 magnitude quake in Youngstown, OH, as well as a 5.3 tremor in southern Colorado and a 5.6 event outside of Prague, OK.

According to Holland, those quakes could be the result of injection wells pumping waste into the ground over a long period of time.

"That's a sustained input into the earth. And that sustained input has time then to allow the pressure and the fluid to migrate out away from the well," Holland said.

When the fracking waste water migrates into an existing fault zone, Holland said that is when a man-made earthquake is possible.

"You're adding pressure to the system that isn't naturally there," Holland said. "And you can actually push a fault apart; slightly change the friction on that fault."

Fracking has been around since 1947. The first well fracked in the United States was located in Kansas.

Horizontal fracking, perfected in the past decade, caused the current drilling boom located mostly in the south-central part of Kansas. The close proximity of those wells to the Wolf Creek plant has Spease sounding the alarm.

"This would be a disaster like we have not seen in this country," Spease warned.

Holland disagreed with Spease's dire prediction of an injection well causing a nuclear disaster similar to that seen in Fukushima, Japan, after that country's earthquake in 2011.

"I don't believe there is an inherent risk, at that sort of magnitude," Holland said. "That's kind of alarmist."

Wolf Creek spokeswoman Jenny Hageman backed up Holland's assessment.

"We are built to safely shutdown and to maintain the reactor in a safe condition in the event of a significant earthquake, especially for our area," she told KCTV5.

Hageman said the nuclear plant was built to handle a quake in the neighborhood of 7.0 on the Richter scale, a number greater than any tremor ever felt in Kansas history.

While Wolf Creek might be protected from an injection well quake, Holland said these types of tremors still pose a minor threat to populated areas with problems such as cracked bricks and toppled chimneys. Holland said he does think states should start requiring geological studies of the areas where oil and gas companies intend to drill injection wells.

"I certainly think that states are going to have to take an active role in examining this and balancing what is right for their economy," Holland said. 

Holland even suggested those studies should be paid for by the oil and gas companies.

Cross disagreed, calling that an unnecessary and cost-prohibitive step.

At this point, the Kansas Legislature has no plans to pass any rule like that.

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