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By Paul Stinson
Feb. 16 — The Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit against three Oklahoma oil and gas companies Feb. 16, alleging that production waste from fracking and oil production have contributed to an “alarming” increase in earthquake activity in the state.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, the lawsuit arrives on the heels of a 5.1 magnitude earthquake on Feb. 13—the third-strongest recorded in the state. The lawsuit, filed against New Dominion LLC, Chesapeake Operating LLC and Devon Energy Production Co., demands the companies, as a first step, “reduce, immediately and substantially, the amounts of production wastes they are injecting into the ground.”
“The bottom line is that the people of Oklahoma's safety should not come second to profits,” Oklahoma Sierra Club Director Johnson Bridgwater told Bloomberg BNA by e-mail Feb. 16. “Let’s be clear on this—the only reason significant injection cuts have not occurred is because of the financial gains being made by the companies tied to the injection.”
Following a 1975-2008 period that produced 56 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater, the state experienced 907 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in 2015, according to the Sierra Club. Continued injection of production waste, the group said in its complaint, “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment.”
“The science laid out in our case is clear,” said Paul Bland, executive director of Washington-based Public Justice, serving as counsel for the plaintiff. “Oklahoma may be on the verge of experiencing a strong and potentially catastrophic earthquake. All evidence points to alarming seismic activity in and around fracking operations, and that activity is becoming more frequent and more severe.”
Responding to a request for comment, a spokesman for Devon Energy told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail that it would be “inappropriate” to discuss litigation. Requests for comment to the other two companies named in the suit in addition to the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association went without reply.
The legal action follows the October 2015 issuance of a notice of intent to sue naming as defendants the Oklahoma-based energy companies of Sandridge Exploration and Production LLC, New Dominion LLC, Chesapeake Operating LLC and Devon Energy Production Co., alleging violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), “resulting from the injection and disposal of waste fluids from the oil and fracking industries into the ground via wells in Oklahoma.” .
Brought into force in 1976, the RCRA allows citizen lawsuits over hazardous waste.
In an effort to illustrate the relationship between energy exploration and seismicity, the complaint refers to a visual aid, noting that an “Overlaying [of] the locations of Defendants’ wells onto the places where earthquakes above magnitude 3.5 have been felt shows that earthquakes are occurring in the vicinity of [the companies’] wells and along faults that are close to the wells.”
SandRidge Energy is expected to be named in a separate lawsuit later in the spring, Richard Webster, the attorney heading up the legal team for Public Justice in the suit, told Bloomberg BNA.
The plaintiffs elected to leave SandRidge out of the suit, due to timing concerns surrounding receipt of the notice letter, according to Webster.
“Therefore, we decided to be cautious and wait until 90 days after full service before filing against them,” Webster said in a Feb. 16 e-mail, noting that they intend to sue SandRidge “for similar violations” of the RCRA when the notice period expires.
“The ball is in the defendants’ courts,” Webster said. “We expect them to respond to us and then to get into discovery to see what they knew and when.”
Lawsuits over energy exploration and earthquakes are becoming an increasingly present feature on the Oklahoma landscape, as the state continues to evolve its approach toward the state’s increased levels of seismicity.
Following a pair of earthquakes registering magnitudes of 4.3 and 4.2, residents of the city of Edmond—population 87,000—filed suit in early January against multiple oil companies. Alleging negligence, the plaintiffs claim the companies should have known disposal well activity would result in an increased likelihood of earthquakes .
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the oil and gas regulator in the state, continues to target saltwater disposal wells in the geologic formation known as the Arbuckle. In January, the OCC ordered the reduction of saltwater disposal volumes in areas of concern, marking the third such measure by the state in January alone.
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The complaint in Sierra Club v. Chesapeake Operating LLC in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma is available at http://src.bna.com/cEQ.
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