Kansas utility regulators on Thursday pushed off a decision that could impact more than 2,000 salt-water injection wells in the state, leaving environmentalists waiting another week in a contentious argument that pits them against oil and gas companies.
The Kansas Corporation Commission declined to decide this week about whether action should be taken after oil and gas companies failed to specify in legal notices published since October 2008 that interested parties had 30 days to object to their applications for injection wells. Although Kansas Administrative Regulations call for a 30-day notice, 1,007 applications affecting 2,111 wells gave a 15-day notice period in published notices, according to a report generated by KCC staff.
That report in February led to the opening of a general investigation into the situation. The commission, which typically holds business meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, is expected to take up the matter next week.
Commission Chair Shari Feist-Albrecht said Thursday she found an error in "some of the information" that she would like to reconcile. She also made reference to a late pleading filed after 5 p.m. Wednesday.
That filing came from attorney Robert Eye, who represents Sierra Club, Douglas County and individual citizens in the docket.
Eye said two notices published in July by CK Oil in the Woodson County Citizen continued to use a 15-day period rather than the required 30 days.
"It's exactly the same problem that existed with those other thousands of defective notices," he said. "I thought it important to bring to their attention that these problems had not been cured, at least in the interest of those two notices."
Journalist Cindy Hoedel has been active in raising concerns about salt-water injection wells that have been tied to increased earthquake activity in the state. She was at the Thursday KCC meeting and although disappointed that the docket was delayed, said she was glad they were taking Eye's filing seriously. It's important the commission follow the 30-day guidelines laid out in Kansas regs, she said.
"They are choking us off in terms of giving us less and less time to try to mount a protest, to try to submit any kind of a comment," Hoedel said. "These notices get published in these tiny little rural newspapers, and sometimes it might take us 15 days before we find it."
Hoedel said protests can't be filed electronically and must be submitted by mail. In addition, they are required to be delivered to the appropriate KCC office within the specified time period, and it doesn't count if it was postmarked appropriately but delivered after the deadline. Linda Berry, KCC spokeswoman, said that is because an injection well application is handled administratively and is only put into the docket system, where electronic submissions can be accepted, after a protest has been filed.
The KCC staff filed its recommendation in the investigative docket in June, urging commissioners to close the docket and "take no further action."
"The discrepancies between the notices published by operators and the legal protest time frame did not violate any Commission regulation," a staff filing said.
Hoedel said she doesn't understand that conclusion at all.
"I cannot explain it to you because it doesn't make any sense to me," she said. "If they don't think it's require,d then why are they making companies that did it wrong go back and republish when they're finding them now? All the ones that I discovered that have been four months previously, they required those oil companies to do it over again, to put a new notice in the newspaper that says 30 days."
Hoedel said she wants the oil companies held to the same standards that she and others who have expressed concern about the dangers of salt-water injection have been held.
"If we make a mistake we have to do it over again," she said. "We get dismissed. These permits were improperly granted because the oil companies did not comply with a very serious requirement that you give the public adequate time to take to take a look at that application and see if you have some objection to it."
Hoedel also pointed out that 20 state legislators signed a letter she submitted asking the KCC to revoke all of the permits that did not cite a 30-day notice.
Eye said the failure to specify a 30-day notice is a due process violation.
"Procedural due process is a means by which we make sure that the government is acting properly, and it's a check on government power in a way," he said.
"The reality is that the oil and gas industry intervenors and the staff have both taken the position that there's basically no harm, no foul," Eye added. "I would respectfully disagree with that because I think the harm comes in the failure to have a process that's consistent with what the law expects."
Eye, Hoedel and other intervenors have asked the KCC to have all the improperly noticed permits be revoked, which would force the operators to reapply for permits.