Kansas geology may be suited for fracking



When modern oil companies come to Marion County and other parts of the country in search of black gold, two outcomes seem inevitable: they discover oil and they generate environmental concerns about the method used to extract it.

The drilling approach they use, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been blamed by some people for contaminating water supplies in Colorado and Pennsylvania and even contributing to the earthquake that rattled Okla?homa last November.

The debate has surfaced in Kansas recent months as large companies using horizontal multistage hydrofracking started drilling in Sumner, Harper, Barber and Comanche counties.

Earlier this month, surveyors did preliminary work for a 15,000- to 20,000-acre project in the middle of Marion County. Drilling could begin this summer, according Chaz Doffing, an oil and gas land-leasing agent contracted through Wichita-based J. Fred Hambright Inc.


?I feel really good about bringing this kind of project to the people of the community,? Doffing said.

Such a response would be expected from an agent representing the oil company, but Doffing is not alone in his positive assessment.

Concerns of environmentalists have not yet been quelled, but Kansas regulators say the record for fracking is clear: There has never been a case of groundwater contamination caused by fracking in the state?s history.

?Kansas?s favorable geologic setting, its regulatory process, and its successful history of hydraulic fracturing and fluid management make it one of the safer regions of the country to employ the practice,? Daniel R. Suchy and K. David Newell of the Kansas Geological Survey conclude in an article for the KGS website.

The issues involved

To understand the issues involved requires some basic knowledge about hydraulic fracturing.

Fracking is a method of enhancing oil and gas recovery from wells by injecting water, sand and chemicals into rock formations under very high pressure. The pressurized water fractures the rock and releases the oil and gas trapped in tiny pores.

The practice has been used in the industry for decades after being pioneered in Kansas in 1947.

The development of horizontal drilling in recent years has made fracking much more productive. In Kansas, a horizontal well goes down about 4,000 feet, then the drill bit is manipulated until it runs horizontally for about another 4,000 feet.

The well is lined with steel tubing, which is cemented in. A unit is lowered into the hole that blasts holes through the tubing at regular intervals.

A special crew then uses pumper trucks to force 2 million to 3 million gallons of water under high pressure into the well to fracture the surrounding rock beyond the holes.

The primary environmental concern arises because most drillers mix 1 percent of hazard chemicals with 90 percent water and 10 percent aggregate?mostly sand?to prevent corrosion, retard bacteria growth and bind clay.

The potential of the contaminated water, or the oil, mixing at any point with the groundwater or surface water is what makes environmentalists nervous.

No chemicals

Because of the competitive nature of the oil business, Doffing has asked that the name of the drilling company coming to Marion County not be identified until the project moves ahead.

But he maintains the company is different from many: ?No chemicals are sent into the ground for the purposes of fracking.?

?Fracking has changed,? Doffing added. ?It?s one of those things where you learn from your mistakes. Fracking in this area?and it has been documented on several of the leases?will be aggregate and water only.?

?I believe there were fracking fluids used in years past where gas from the fracking fluid could contaminate water. The oil companies have learned from that. The process has gotten better in that respect.?

Beyond advancements in the fracking process, Suchy and Newell report that Kansas geology makes contamination all the more unlikely.

?In the majority of cases in Kansas, formations targeted for oil and gas production lie thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth, whereas ground-water aquifers used for drinking water and irrigation lie within a few hundred feet of the surface,? they write.

?The drinking-water aquifer is therefore separated from the oil or gas reservoir by thousands of feet of impermeable rock and is thus protected from contamination by oil or gas.?

Doffing said there?s another reason local residents should not be concerned that fracking will occur near Marion Reservoir, which is the raw-water source for Hills?boro, Marion and Peabody.

?Any company that?s willing to deal with the government wants to do everything by the book because there?s going to be a lot of focus on that one drill site,? he said. ?They?re putting themselves under extreme scrutiny.

?People should take some comfort in that rather than (the old days when) a few guys working in a wooded area and a truck occasionally visited. This will be something that will get a lot more attention.?

No quaking

Doffing also downplayed the notion that fracking contributes to earthquakes.

?Tetonic plates are all around us, at all levels. No matter where we?re looking?at the ocean?s crust or at typical earth crust, like in the plains area that we?re in?they are deeper than oil production,? he said.

?There may be an area near Great Britain where the crust may be just right, or where an island may be just such?perhaps it could help a tremor along. I don?t know that answer.

?Typically, especially in the Midwest, oil has nothing to do with earthquakes, in my humble opinion.?

An article published by the Scientific American shortly after the Nov. 5 Oklahoma earthquake reaches a similar conclusion.

?I won?t say that man?s activity never ever caused the release of seismic stress, but hydro-fracks are such small things,? seismologist Randy Keller, director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, was quoted as saying about the magnitude 5.6 temblor that buckled a highway and ruptured water pipes.

?If we were talking a magnitude 1 or 2 earthquake, that?d be different, but it?s awfully hard to imagine a hydro-frack being involved with one of this size.?

Risks and rewards

Doffing said the risks of fracking in Kansas are minimal compared to the potential payoff?not just for the oil companies and lucky land?owners, but the country as a whole.

?I see a need for alternative fuels, but I also see a need for the pill bottles, the roads, the tires?everything we make with petroleum products,? he said.

?I?don?t care how we fuel the cars, but we still need to lubricate the cars and the machinery that makes them. Unfortunately, we?re going to need (oil). Why pay another country for it? Kansas can be a wonderful oil producer.

?I?m a strong believer in regulated resource management?trees, air, water,? Doffing added. ?Let?s do it, but let?s do it right because this is where we live. Let?s not poison our people.?

Next week: Financial impact.

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