- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The Kansas Geological Survey told lawmakers Monday that it needs more money to investigate and monitor an unprecedented spike in earthquakes in the state.

Agency Director Rex Buchanan told the House Energy and Environment Committee that most of the earthquakes have not been felt on the surface and collectively have done minimal damage but they have been stronger and more frequent than in any other time in recorded Kansas history.

The agency has recorded 206 earthquakes since Jan. 1, 2013, after detecting just five over the previous 10 years, according to its website. The strongest ever recorded earthquake in Kansas - a 4.9-magnitude quake near Milan in Sumner County - struck in November.

Buchanan said his agency and the U.S. Geological Survey are still studying the problem, but their “working hypothesis” is that there is a relation between the earthquakes and the practice of injecting wastewater into underground wells. This technique is used as a part of several mining processes, including hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Fracking is used to get at previously unreachable oil and natural gas deposits. However, some activists have criticized the practice as excessively harmful to the environment.

“I think folks do see a correlation between an increased number and volume of disposal wells in southeast Kansas and seismic activity. It’s reasonable to say that that’s where we’re going, and that’s where the attention is going at this point,” Buchanan said.

He added that new geological studies on the issue are being published on an “almost weekly” basis and one appears to have determined a direct link between fracking and earthquakes in Ohio.

Rick Miller, chief of exploration services at the Kansas Geological Survey, said it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the current spike is a part of a cyclical trend, because existing data only goes back to the first earthquakes felt by Kansas settlers in the 1860s. Geological trends can occur on much longer horizons.

“It could be a natural phenomenon. It could be that we have a huge swarm that is, timing-wise, that’s come in a big bump. Is that likely? No. But I can’t say definitively that’s not what’s happening because we don’t know for sure yet,” he said.

In order to gather more data, the Kansas Geological Survey wants to place six permanent seismic monitors across the state in order to triangulate the exact locations of earthquakes and determine what factors might have caused them. The agency also hopes to gather additional data from privately owned seismic stations and energy drilling operations themselves, although much of that information is considered proprietary and confidential in the energy industry, Miller said.

To continue to operate and properly analyze the data from these monitoring stations, Buchanan said the agency will need about $400,000 of annual funding, but said there is no indication yet that they will receive it. The agency is currently appropriated about $5.9 million annually from the state budget and it raises additional funds through contract work, but Buchanan said that the contractual work fluctuates and is unreliable for funding constant operations.

“This (seismic) activity may wax and wane, and because of lower oil prices there may be less production over time. There may be some sort of temporary respite that comes along here, but oil prices will go back up and production will go back up. There’s no reason to believe this issue has gone away or will go away,” Buchanan said.

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