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Kansas Regulators Probe Oneok Disconnects, Claims of Elevated Hydrogen Sulfide Gas

Kansas regulators have begun an investigation into why Oneok Field Services is the only gathering company serving the Hugoton field that has reported problems with high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) in its natural gas supply and has moved to disconnect service to local distribution customers (LDCs) as a result.

On March 15, Oneok advised Midwest Energy to disconnect service to 46 natural gas customers in southwest Kansas. This was in addition to two customers whose gas already had been shut-off after testing revealed elevated hydrogen sulfide levels of 20 parts/million parts of air, a standard established by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Midwest Energy requested that Oneok prove that the hydrogen sulfide levels were high before shutting off service to its customers. The company filed a complaint with the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) the following day and had the 46 disconnections reversed, said Earnie Lehman, president and general manage of the Hays, KS-based natural gas and electric utility.

"Oneok's concern from the beginning and continues to be safety. That was the reason for our action," said Weldon Watson, a spokesman for parent Oneok Inc. in Tulsa, OK.

The natural gas in question is unprocessed gas, meaning that it is delivered directly from a well in the Hugoton field to the LDC and then to the end customer.

In their order, the KCC regulators questioned why Oneok, out of five gatherers in the region, was the only one initiating service disconnects based on concerns about the content of the natural gas from the Hugoton field, Lehman noted.

The incident was not an isolated one. On Feb. 4, Aquila began disconnecting gas service for 100 residential customers in the Midwest after being advised by Oneok of elevated hydrogen sulfide levels. Midwest Energy and Aquila have now joined forces in the state's investigation of the matter.

Aquila has not reconnected the residential customers, but rather it has assisted the customers in conversions to alternative fuels, said company spokesman George Minter. Oneok also threatened to cut off service to 140 irrigation and commercial customers (large farm operations), but it then temporarily suspended the disconnect notice for the customers and that's how it stands today, he noted.

"We requested specific data from Oneok in early February" about the hydrogen sulfide concentrations in the gas. "We still have not received that," he told NGI last Wednesday.

The KCC has scheduled a hearing at its headquarters in Topeka, KS, for April 11, where Oneok reportedly will present evidence on the extent of the problem, Lehman said. "We will comply with the Kansas authorities," noted Oneok's Watson.

The state commission also has established a task force, comprised of KCC members and Oneok and Aquila officials, to study the issue, according to Minter. The task force began its work before the Midwest Energy disconnections occurred, he noted.

The "phenomenon" of increased hydrogen sulfide levels "is something that you find in a depleting gas field," Lehman said. He noted that the Hugoton field, which is considered one of the largest gas fields in the United States, has been in operation for at least half a century.

As a result of recent events, the Kansas legislature is considering legislation that would extend the KCC's existing authority over regulation in the natural gas gathering area.

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