‘INDUCED’ EARTHQUAKES: UNSETTLING FEDERAL LAW?

Sandra Ladra was injured in 2011 when an earthquake toppled the chimney of her Oklahoma home. A natural occurrence? Her lawyers say it was a man-made quake caused by injection wells operated by oil and gas companies.

The deep wells are injected with saltwater and “flowback” from oil and gas extraction operations. The practice, and its link to earthquakes, has spawned litigation in several states.

Earthquakes are traditionally viewed as natural events. But what if they are caused by human activity? Should courts or industry regulators oversee such claims?

 

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Oklahoma state courts faced some of these issues last year, but the most recent permutation is pending in a federal court—the Western District of Oklahoma. It remains to be seen whether both courts follow a similar path.

Well operators initially gained the dismissal of Ladra’s state case, arguing her tort claims should be heard by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, an agency that oversees oil and gas extraction activities in the state. 

But the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed the dismissal last year. Damages claims between private parties belong in the courts, not a regulatory agency, the court said.

Now, an environmental action filed by the Sierra Club in February poses similar—and some new—questions.

The citizen suit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act warns that a strong, induced earthquake could rupture oil tanks in a huge oil storage facility in Cushing, Okla., posing “an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.” 

As they did in Ladra, well operators have asked the federal court to dismiss the case, which they say is the first asking a court to apply RCRA to induced earthquake claims. 

And, as they also argued in Ladra, the operators contend the OCC should be allowed to exercise its expertise in regulating injection wells, unfettered by the court case. 

The motion has another twist.

Congress never intended RCRA—a law designed to regulate the disposal of hazardous waste—to apply to man-made earthquakes, the well operators assert. 

That view, if accepted by the court, could prevent the Sierra Club and others from filing RCRA citizen suits over quakes allegedly caused by Oklahoma’s injection wells. 

The Sierra Club’s reply to the motion is pending.

Time will tell whether the federal court views the RCRA claims in the same light as the Oklahoma Supreme Court when it declined to dismiss Ladra’s tort claims.

Read more about these cases and other fracking-related issues by taking a free trial of Bloomberg BNA’s Toxics Law Reporter.