With a new lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club Tuesday, some of the state’s largest energy companies now face lawsuits seeking class-action status in two counties and action in federal court aimed at holding them responsible for Oklahoma’s increasingly violent earthquakes.
The latest lawsuit comes just three days after the state’s third largest earthquake, a 5.1, struck near the town of Fairview in northwest Oklahoma near the Kansas border. Also Tuesday, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission announced details of a plan to reduce wastewater injection over a 5,000-square-mile area of western Oklahoma.
The lawsuit by the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club names Devon Energy Production Co., Chesapeake Operating LLC and New Dominion LLC, and is filed in the Western District of Oklahoma.
In emails to The Frontier, spokesmen for Devon and New Dominion declined to comment on the suit. Chesapeake could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Sandridge Exploration and Production LLC was included in the Sierra Club’s notice of intent to sue under the federal law and may be named as a defendant at a later date.
The suit asks a federal judge to order the companies to “immediately and substantially reduce” wastewater injection to levels recommended by seismologists and require the companies to “reinforce vulnerable structures” that could be impacted by large earthquakes.
The suit is brought under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which allows citizens to sue defendants who pose an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment.”
Johnson Bridgwater, director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is not aware of the law previously being used to target earthquakes.
“I think this is probably a one-of-a-kind in the nation lawsuit,” he said.
However, Bridgwater said he believes suing under the law is a good approach to addressing Oklahoma’s earthquake crisis.
“Not only do we have damage to buildings but our bigger concern is the health aspect.”
In town hall meetings throughout the state, Bridgwater said the Sierra Club “met with people all over Oklahoma last year. We have Oklahomans experiencing severe anxiety and psychological trauma. This isn’t simply about a broken foundation.”
The number of earthquakes in Oklahoma jumped from 50 in 2009 to more than 5,800 last year, making the state the most seismically active in the lower 48 states. So far this year, the state has experienced at least seven earthquakes measuring 4.0 or higher.
Julie Allison said she hopes the lawsuit can accomplish what public officials in Oklahoma are apparently afraid to do.
Every night before Allison goes to bed in her Edmond home, she pulls up an app on her phone displaying locations of Oklahoma’s earthquakes during the past 24 hours. Allison, who owns a medical compliance business, takes a screenshot of the map and charts the distance from each epicenter to her two-story home.
Her list includes a 4.2 quake on New Year’s day and the 4.3 quake three days before that. Both were about two miles north of her home. Though the 5.1 earthquake Saturday was much farther to the north and west, she said she felt it rocking the walls.
Allison and her husband bought earthquake insurance in 2012 and she figures they may need proof the quakes caused new cracks snaking through her foundation, exterior rock and brick, interior walls and driveway during the last several years.
But she doesn’t want to submit a claim for the damage, which she estimates at $50,000, until the state finds a way to stop or at least dramatically reduce the earthquakes. Allison said she has little faith that the plan announced by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission Tuesday will do that.
“It’s disheartening. I don’t feel that we’re getting the truth,” Allison said. “Mary Fallin is not coming out and talking to the people. We didn’t elect (OCC spokesman) Matt Skinner. We elected Todd Hiett and two others to the Corporation Commission. When you are hiding, you are hiding something.”
The Corporation Commission announced a “regional earthquake response plan” Tuesday covering 5,281 square miles in western Oklahoma. The plan applies to 245 wells where wastewater from oil and gas drilling is injected into the Arbuckle geological layer.
Though state agencies and officials were previously reluctant to connect earthquakes and oil and gas drilling, that stance began to change in recent months. The commission’s announcement states that scientists “largely agree that wastewater injection into the Arbuckle formation poses the largest potential risk for earthquakes in Oklahoma.”
Despite a widely held belief that wastewater used in the fracking process is to blame, the vast majority of wastewater is naturally occurring but toxic brine produced during the drilling process.
The state’s plan will be phased in during the next two months and is expected to cut wastewater injection in the impacted area by more than 500,000 barrels per day, or about 40 percent of the total volume.
Tim Baker, director of the OCC’s Oil and Gas Conservation Division, said the new plan is part of an ongoing effort to respond to the state’s dramatic rise in earthquakes.
“There is agreement among researchers, including our partners at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, that the data clearly underscored the need for a larger, regional response,” Baker said in a news release.
“This plan is aimed not only at taking further action in response to past activity, but also to get out ahead of it and hopefully prevent new areas from being involved.”
Oklahoma City attorney William Federman, one of several attorneys representing the Sierra Club, told The Frontier Tuesday he expects “a considerable challenge from the industry as well as people who are supported through the industry.”
“Our elected officials and the Corporation Commission is clearly kowtowing to the industry,” he said.
Federman said he is “100 percent supportive of the oil and gas industry” and its importance to the state.
“We want our friends, our siblings to be employed. What we don’t want is our kids getting killed because the house falls down on them. If the industry refuses to do the right thing … the courts need to step in.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to oversee the establishment of an “independent earthquake monitoring and prediction center” to determine how much wastewater can safely be injected into a well or formation before earthquakes are triggered.
Federman said that request is aimed at taking the politics out of the process.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey, a state agency based at the University of Oklahoma, is responsible for tracking and responding to earthquakes.
“The OGS is not an independent body. They are essentially captives to the energy industry,” he said.
As reported by EnergyWire, Bloomberg and other media outlets, OGS and its scientists were pressured to downplay connections between the state’s earthquakes and oil and gas activity. The state’s two seismologists left last year and the agency has yet to replace them, despite receiving an infusion of $1 million in extra funds.
The agency has since acknowledged most of the quakes are “very likely” caused by injection wells, as years of studies have concluded.
“Everyone finally acknowledges there is a problem,” Federman said. “Our energy industry knows there’s a connection. Five months ago they’re denying it. Let’s unleash the brains at our universities to figure this out.”
In addition to the threat of federal court action, energy companies face lawsuits in state courts. Scott Poynter, an attorney based in Little Rock, has filed suits in Lincoln and Logan counties seeking class-action status for people whose property has been damaged by the earthquakes.
The suit in Logan County, filed on behalf of property owners Lisa Griggs and April Marler, seeks class-action status for people who sustained property damage from earthquakes throughout the state.
That suit was filed Jan. 12 and names Chesapeake Operating, LLC, New Dominion, LLC, Devon Energy Production Co., LP and Sandridge Exploration and Production , LLC.
The Lincoln County suit seeks relief for property owners damaged by the the 5.6 earthquake that struck Prague, Okla. on Nov. 6, 2011. The earthquake injured two people, destroyed six homes and damaged more than 100 others.
That lawsuit, filed by Jennifer Lin Cooper on Feb. 10, 2015, names New Dominion LLC, Spess Oil Co., and 25 other unnamed defendants.
Poynter filed a separate lawsuit in 2014 against New Dominion, Spess Oil and other unnamed defendants on behalf of Sandra Ladra, who was injured in the Prague earthquake. Ladra’s chimney collapsed, causing injuries to her legs, the lawsuit claims.
Poynter said the state and federal lawsuits rely on different laws to help Oklahomans who have been damaged by Oklahoma’s earthquakes or protect them from future quakes.
“What we believe needs to happen is take the politics out of the process. … The overall purpose of the lawsuit is to develop through the scientific evidence what will create safety for Oklahomans.”