We were encouraged to see two separate but related actions take place last week -- one federal, one state. In both cases the steps were small, but appear at least to be reinserting public safety into the hydraulic fracturing equation.
On Thursday, the Kansas Corporation Commission ordered a reduction in the amount of waste saltwater that is being injected into disposal wells in Harper and Sumner counties. Specifically targeting injection wells drilled into five areas of "seismic concern" in the Arbuckle geologic formation in south-central Kansas, the KCC is forcing a 60-percent reduction from current disposal levels. Large-volume injection wells no longer will be permitted within a quarter-mile of another.
The action comes in response to the dramatic and sudden increase in earthquakes in the state. Averaging less than one per year between 1981 and 2010, there were 127 Kansas quakes in 2014 and 51 already this year. The drilling activity -- and resulting wastewater disposal process -- correlates almost precisely.
The Hutchinson News reported: "Experts suspect saltwater injection has triggered earthquakes in the region, based on the rising number of quakes at the same time rates of wastewater injection significantly rose, and studies that have directly tied saltwater disposal to induced seismicity."
We appreciate the state connecting the dots, and also look forward to similar regulations being enforced elsewhere in the state.
The federal government, or at least the Obama administration, is connecting similar dots although its concern is focused on the unidentified chemicals being used to separate gas and oil from rock formations.
On Friday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced several new regulations that include public disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process. Concerns have been raised for years that it is virtually impossible to determine if the process is contaminating groundwater, primarily because chemicals discovered could not be traced to a source that isn't required to tell what is being used.
Jewell is uniquely qualified to deliver the news, as she is a former petroleum engineer with first-hand experience with fracking.
"Many of the regulations on the books today haven't kept pace with advances in technology," Jewell said.
Unfortunately, the disclosure rule and other regulations designed to prevent leakage of fracking fluids only applies to wells on federal land that haven't yet started fracking. Which likely implies more than 90 percent of the existing 100,000 oil and gas wells on federal land will not be affected. Nor will wells on private or state land.
But you have to start somewhere.
While many local communities throughout the country have been banning hydraulic fracturing completely and states such as Texas are looking to have such municipalities in its boundaries make up the difference in lost revenue, a commonsense and science-based approach is needed.
The efficiencies created by horizontal fracturing truly has liberated the oil and gas industry in America. But the side effects caused by the wastewater disposal, and any collateral contamination that might be happening, needs to be factored into the equation. And not the private company's equation, which by definition has to maximize profit. That will never consider the societal costs and environmental consequences unless demanded by law.
Government, at both the state and federal level, has a critical role to play. Somebody has to ensure public safety. Despite all the calls for smaller government and over-regulation, government is uniquely qualified to provide that public service.
We believe the status quo, while certainly uplifting for the oil and gas industry in Kansas and throughout the nation, should not be allowed to continue. The public needs to know what is entering the groundwater, and not be content with hundredfold increases in manmade earthquakes.
We have identified some of the costs of the fracking process that currently are being externalized -- meaning the public is paying for them. As the oil and gas industry collects the profits, it is only fair those companies be held accountable for any damages they cause.
As we mentioned before, both the White House and the State of Kansas are taking baby steps -- but they're headed in the correct direction. We're confident an acceptable balance can be achieved.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry
Nick Schwien is managing editor at The Hays Daily News.