Quaking at the Cosmosphere


2013-2016 Induced Earthquakes in Harper and Sumner Counties Rubinstein, Ellsworth, and Dougherty, Apr 2018

By Aaron Strain / Web Master

Concerned about recent earthquakes in the area, Hutchinson residents packed the Cosmosphere’s Banquet Room on Saturday to hear from U.S. Geological Survey’s Justin Rubinstein.

Rubinstein, Deputy Chief of the USGS Induced Seismology Project, said the growing seismic activity is believed to be caused by oil and gas wastewater injection.

Wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Better drilling technology and deeper wells come with a greater ratio of wastewater to oil and gas, up to 90% salt water and 10% oil. This means that more wastewater is produced to extract a lessening quality oil product.

Produced wastewater can be disposed of through injection or reused in the process of hydraulic fracturing. In Kansas, disposal via injection into the ground is more common. The increase of fluid pressure in the area is a concern to officials who monitor seismic activity.

Rubinstein compared fluid pressure in the earth to an air hockey table. When the table is off, the puck stays in place. As the table powers on, the puck begins to move. In the earth, as fluid pressure increases, the friction between plates decreases and their motion increases. This motion can cause earthquakes that are felt on the surface.

In 2015, the Kansas Corporation Commission, which monitors and regulates the oil and gas industry, placed limits on injection in Harper and Sumner Counties. These counties had seen substantial increases in fluid pressure and earthquakes in the previous few years. After the limits were instituted, seismic activity in the state reduced by 66%, according to the KCC. 

Also during this time, the price of oil dropped, which may have also been a contributor to the decrease. Fluid pressure in south-central Kansas is expected to expand northward in an outward plume.

State Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, who attended the presentation said, “the limits [the KCC] put in place in the highest activity area was good. I think, as [Rubinstein] demonstrated, you saw a decrease in seismic activity. It’s hard to tell whether that was market-driven or because of the regulation, but it’s a good thing to have in place. It’s probably time to look at expanding that zone.”

Earlier this year, Probst proposed a bill that would place an additional fee on well-operators and fund the drilling of more monitoring wells in the state. He believes officials need more data points to accurately track the movement of the pressure plume and where seismic activity is occurring.

“When we have situations like this, we need to be open to any possibility that will reduce seismic activity. And, as [Rubinstein] indicated, we can to some degree control this, and I think we have a duty to try.”

Video of the complete presentation can be viewed on the Cosmosphere’s Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/kscosmosphere/videos/443609202915221/

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