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Water is at the center of energy development in Kansas

By Doug Rich

No matter what energy source you are talking about—ethanol, biomass, or gas and oil from shale formations—Kansas is at the center of energy development. At the center of this development is water.

"Economic development is based on cheap energy and abundant water resources," Mike Hightower, Sandia National Labs, said. Hightower was a featured speaker at the Governor's Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas.

Right now the oil boom in Kansas needs a lot of water to support it but regional water stress has put the water supply in Kansas at risk. The energy sector will be looking at these issues. Hightower said water availability is already impacting new energy development.

"The mid latitudes are experiencing arid conditions that could last for 300 years," Hightower said. "We are 100 years into this cycle and I don't think we have seen the worst yet."

Hightower said if it looks like it might be wet companies are looking at it for energy development needs.

"We need to get started on integrated water resource planning now," Hightower said.

Energy development is very important in Kansas considering the fact that oil and gas have been found in 93 of the 103 counties. Right now there are 46,000 producing oil wells and 24,000 producing natural gas wells in Kansas and companies are sinking more wells using a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, a drilling technique that requires large amounts of water.

The energy situation in this country has changed drastically in a very short amount of time to the point that the U.S. could be an energy exporter in a just a few years, Rex Buchanan, Kansas Geological Survey, said. Increased production can be attributed to the improved technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal drilling has been applied to natural gas but mostly to oil.

In horizontal drilling they go down to the producing unit, typically 4,000 to 6,000 feet below the surface, and then go laterally through the producing unit. These lateral lines can go out 10,000 feet or more from the well. Buchanan said oil is not found in big pools underground anymore than water is found in big lakes underground. Oil is found in the porous spaces in the rock.

"The idea with hydraulic fracturing is to put a mixture of fluids into the well under enough pressure to crack those rocks open," Buchanan said.

Those cracks in the rock allow the oil to flow into the well bore and go to the surface.

Buchanan said this is not a new technology; in fact, it has been used in vertical wells in Kansas since 1947. Kansas was the first place this technology was commercially applied in a well south of Ulysses, Kan., in 1947.

"The Kansas Corporation Commission estimates that there have been 57,000 wells that have undergone hydraulic fracturing in Kansas," Buchanan said. "The difference today is the scale and the application to horizontal drilling."

Today there may be up to four fracking jobs per well. This requires more water and more chemicals.

Buchanan noted that the deepest well in the Ogallala is around 400 feet. Hydraulic fracturing is typically done at a depth of 4,000 to 6,000 feet. Layers of impervious rock, which should prevent it from entering fresh water supplies, contain the movement of fluids used in hydraulic fracking.

The composition of fracking fluid is about 98 percent water, fine grain sand used to prop the cracks in the rocks open, and a variety of other chemicals. According to the Environmental Protection Agency fracking fluids commonly contain water, proppant, acid, friction reducer, surfactant, potassium chloride, gelling agent, scale inhibitor, pH adjusting agent, breaker, crosslinker, iron control, corrosion inhibitor, and a biocide.

Buchanan said although many states require disclosure of what is used in fracking fluids, Kansas is not one of those states. Many companies consider this information to proprietary.

The amount of water needed to do a horizontal fracking job is between 2 and 4 million gallons. Buchanan noted that this is a one-time use. Compare this to an average western Kansas irrigation well that uses approximately 45 million gallons of water to irrigate 125 acres. The other side of the water issue associated with hydraulic fracking is the amount of salt water that comes up with the oil. Buchanan said much of this salt water is disposed of by pumping it back into deep wells.

"I think it is impossible to talk about this state in any kind of meaningful fashion and not talk about water because it affects everything we do," Rex Buchanan, Kansas Geological Survey, said.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at

Date: 11/19/2012


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