Gas leaking from Kansas wells amid dispute over who must fix

Northern Natural Gas Co., which owns the underground storage facility, wants the Kansas Corporation Commission to force well owners to plug abandoned wells

Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. — Natural gas is leaking through unplugged abandoned wells that have penetrated a massive underground storage field in Kansas, creating a public safety hazard amid a dispute over who is responsible for fixing the problem, regulatory filings show.

Northern Natural Gas Co., which owns the underground storage facility, wants the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling in the state, to force well owners to plug abandoned wells. But the commission said in a filing last month that Northern Natural is responsible for making sure its natural gas isn't escaping from the wells — and it asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to order the company to take "remedial action."

Officials are aware of the dangers of not fixing the problem. A series of explosions in 2001 in Hutchinson involving leaking natural gas from another company's underground storage field killed two people and damaged the city. In that case, natural gas migrated from the Yaggy Storage Field northwest of Hutchinson and shot up through unplugged salt brine wells.

Yet Northern Natural Gas told federal regulators in a recent filing that the Kansas Corporation Commission "has sat on its hands with full knowledge of the risk, and has been complicit by allowing the wells to remain unplugged."

In an emailed statement, the state commission said it "recognizes these are very serious issues for our state." The Kansas agency declined to more directly respond to assertions in the company's filing, citing pending litigation.

The dispute involves the Cunningham Storage Field, a depleted natural gas reservoir that was converted into a storage area for natural gas supplies. The wells in question are in an area that Northern Natural acquired through condemnation proceedings in 2010 after it discovered its gas had migrated, something that is not unusual for such storage fields. The wells were capturing some of Northern's stored gas, and as a part of the compensation drillers were also awarded $3,000 per well to either plug their wells or seal them off from Northern's supplies. No money has been paid out yet because the case was appealed.

The fact that wells weren't plugged became an issue in April, when a farmer spreading fertilizer on his field struck the surface pipe of one well, unleashing an outburst of gas and liquids. The farmer turned off his vehicle, the gas did not ignite and no one was hurt. But the well owner refused to take responsibility for extinguishing the blowout, according to the Kansas Corporation Commission. Northern also said it had no obligation to act.

The commission called in experts to extinguish the blowout and plug the well, costing Kansas $166,030, the agency said. The commission inspected other abandoned wells in the storage field, and found two that have been leaking gas for at least three months.

Northern contends in its filing that five unplugged wells above its field are a safety risk. The company did not learn of the two leaking wells until the commission filed its motion, and the agency has still not told the company which wells are leaking, Northern spokesman Michael Loeffler said.

"We don't want our facilities to be unsafe. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in integrity issues over the years to ensure the safety of our pipeline. And then you have someone like the KCC who is charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe and they really are complicit with allowing this situation to continue," Loeffler said.

Kansas has 17 underground natural gas storage facilities, according to the commission. Cunningham Storage Field spans parts of Pratt, Kingman and Reno counties. The Yaggy Storage Field is nearby and is owned by Kansas Gas Service Co.

Kansas Gas Services' then-owner, Tulsa, Oklahoma-based ONEOK Inc., reached a settlement with families of the people who died in 2001. A jury later awarded damages to some homeowners.

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