Oklahoma earthquakes prompt legal action

A wall of mural bricks fell from the Lions Club building in downtown Cushing following a November 5.0 magnitude earthquake. (Laura Eastes)

A wall of mural bricks fell from the Lions Club building in downtown Cushing following a November 5.0 magnitude earthquake. (Laura Eastes)

Walk the streets of Cushing these days and you’ll see loose bricks littering the sidewalks, boarded-up storefront windows, blocked entryways into historic buildings and posted “closed for repairs” signs. A few days after a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Payne County community in early November, the city’s manager classified damage from the manmade quake as “substantial,” impacting 40 to 50 structures in the town of more than 8,000 people.

A little farther east, just two months earlier, the same thing happened in another of Oklahoma’s oil field towns. The strongest earthquake in Oklahoma’s history shook the community of Pawnee, rattling the rest of the state and six neighboring states.

With evidence coming in from one study after another, scientists are certain that oil and gas drilling, specifically the rapid injection of fluid during wastewater disposal, is causing the hundreds of quakes recorded in the Sooner State in recent years.

The injection-induced earthquakes are part of the new normal in many of Oklahoma’s oil field towns. In fact, both Pawnee and Cushing residents have felt tremors since their large quakes rolled through. This spring, the USGS published its first map identifying manmade earthquake hazards. Oklahoma earned the top spot for the highest risk and likelihood of a damaging earthquake.

While state officials were slow to link earthquakes to wastewater wells, state oil and gas regulators responded after the Labor Day and November quakes. Using current rules, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission implemented action plans, ordering dozens of wells to shut down and restricting disposal volumes near the earthquakes’ epicenters.

Oklahoma’s earthquakes have generated calls of action to the state’s highest officials. With the legislative session set to begin in February, there is optimism that lawmakers could take on the issue, enacting new regulations or laws to effectively end the earthquakes.

Others, including an environmental organization and a tribe, are taking their grievances and complaints to court in hopes to drive change in the oil and gas industry.

Class action petitions

“These people, the residents, have damage at no fault of their own,” said Curt Marshall, associate attorney in New York-based Weitz & Luxenberg, which is involved in a handful of earthquake litigation filed in Oklahoma.

“We believe this was avoidable,” Marshall told Oklahoma Gazette. “We are not aiming to shut down the industry. We know it is vital to the Oklahoma economy.”

In recent months, residents impacted by the magnitude 5.8 Pawnee quake in September and November’s 5.0 Cushing quake have crowded town hall meetings hosted by Weitz & Luxenberg. There, attorneys documented losses, from property value to residents’ peace of mind.

In the weeks following both quakes, the law firm served as co-counsel on class action petitions filed in state courts. Most recently, Cushing residents filed suit against five Oklahoma-based energy companies in Payne County District Court.

The plaintiffs are local residents whose homes and properties suffered major destruction, including structural cracks, cracks in bricks and mortar and broken windows and doors.

The suit alleges the damages “were caused by Defendants’ pollution of the environment around Cushing through their disposal of fracking wastewater with injection wells.”

Oklahoma City-based White Star Petroleum and Crown Energy Company were named in the petition, along with Petro Warrior LLC, FHA Investments LLC and Cher Oil Company Ltd. Additionally, 25 unnamed companies were included in the filing.

In mid-November, a similar class action petition was filed in Pawnee County. It argues that wastewater pumped into wells near Pawnee caused the earthquake and seeks money from energy companies, specifically Eagle Road Oil and Cummings Oil Company, to compensate residents for damages to property.

Both suits seek relief for residents’ physical and emotional suffering, Marshall said.

“The fear is when will the next (earthquake) be and will it be bigger than the last one,” Marshall said.

Federal complaint

Troubled by the upswing in earthquakes and the growing scientific evidence connecting wastewater to seismicity, the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club penned petitions for the governor’s office and arranged meetings with lawmakers in hopes to change regulations and see decreases in tremors.

With no proposals or orders put forward, the environmental organization began reaching out to Oklahomans impacted by the quakes. At community meetings, a scientist explained earthquakes’ link to oil and gas productions and Sierra Club leaders explained options for driving change, which included speaking to Oklahoma’s elected officials.

“It angers us that the state continues to not take major steps,” said Sierra Club executive director Johnson Bridgwater. “They are continuing to pursue a reactive policy when it is very clear they should be acting in a proactive manner. In fact, they are not issuing moratoriums, but little orders after each incident occurs. That’s not getting ahead of the game.”

In February, Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit against some of Oklahoma’s largest energy companies. The suit asks a judge to order Devon Energy Production Co., Chesapeake Operating LLC and New Dominion LLC to reduce the amount of production waste they are injecting into the ground. It also looks to require companies to “reinforce vulnerable structures” that could be impacted in a large earthquake and establish an earthquake monitoring system.

The complaint is brought under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is a law governing the disposal of solid and hazardous waste.

“We want to see the industry held accountable,” Bridgwater said. “Specifically, changing their practices to stop earthquakes. That’s our concern.”

The oil companies’ attorneys filed motions to dismiss the case, arguing the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is taking action to reduce the volumes of wastewater in disposal wells. The case awaits a judge’s ruling.

The Sierra Club believes its case has the potential to radically alter the impact of wastewater injection wells, whereas class action lawsuits — if won by the plaintiffs — include payouts, not change. Regardless, the Sierra Club supports residents pursuing legal options in class action lawsuits, Bridgwater said.

“Frankly, we think that’s the only way people have a voice,” Bridgwater said. “We feel the Oklahoma government has failed them.”

Pawnee Nation

Last month, the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma filed suit against the federal government on claims the Interior Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued oil and gas permits without consulting with the tribe or complying with tribal natural resource protections laws.

A year ago, the Pawnee Nation issued a moratorium on leasing and hydraulic fracturing operations until the tribe and federal agencies could develop a policy to address earthquakes and other concerns. The lawsuit states federal officials did not honor the tribe’s moratorium, issuing drilling permits.

“In doing so, BIA and BLM also have run roughshod over Pawnee natural resource protection laws, disregarded a tribal moratorium on new oil and gas approvals, and violated the agencies’ trust responsibilities to the Pawnee,” the lawsuit stated.

 

Print headline: Shake up, Recent earthquakes trigger lawsuits, including individual litigation against energy companies and claims of violations of tribal moratoriums.

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