If you live in Oklahoma, and you’ve been injured by an earthquake that was possibly triggered by oil and gas operations, you can now sue the oil company for damages.
That’s the effect of a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which on Tuesday rejected efforts by the oil industry to prevent earthquake injury lawsuits from being heard in court. Instead of being decided by juries and judges, the industry was arguing that cases should be resolved by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, a state regulatory agency.
The state’s high court rejected that argument.
“The Commission, although possessing many of the powers of a court of record, is without the authority to entertain a suit for damages,” the opinion reads. “Private tort actions, therefore, are exclusively within the jurisdiction of district courts.”
The ruling is a win for Sandra Ladra, the woman at the center of the lawsuit. Ladra claims that on Nov. 5, 2011, she was watching television with her family when a 5.6 magnitude intraplate earthquake struck, causing huge chunks of rock to fall from her fireplace and chimney. Some of the rocks fell onto Ladra’s legs and into her lap, causing what the lawsuit describes as “significant injury.”
Ladra claimed $75,000 in damages against Tulsa-based oil and gas company New Dominion LLC, and Cleveland, Oklahoma-based Spess Oil Co. for allegedly causing the earthquake. According to the lawsuit, the companies directly caused the earthquake through wastewater injection, a common process in which oil companies take the leftover water used to drill wells and inject it deep into the ground.
There is some science to back up Ladra’s claim. A joint study by the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the U.S. Geological Survey linked the 2011 earthquake to a wastewater injection. However, the Oklahoma Geological Survey has disputed that study, asserting that the earthquake was more likely the result of natural causes.
Tuesday’s ruling by the state Supreme Court does not say whether the oil companies are in fact responsible for the earthquake, much less the injuries Ladra sustained. It does, however, give Ladra the opportunity to make her case before a judge and a jury, instead of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which is run by three elected Republican commissioners.
“It’s a significant development,” Poe Leggette, a partner at the law firm BakerHostetler, told the Wall Street Journal. “Any time you have an issue like this that is going to become subject to a potential jury trial, it clearly increases risk to the companies.”
The issue of whether oil companies could be held responsible for earthquakes has been closely watched in Oklahoma, where seismic activity has been steadily on the rise since the start of the fracking boom there in 2009. Right now, the state averages about 10 small earthquakes per day — on June 26, there were 25 quakes. The Oklahoma Geological Survey recognizes this is unprecedented, saying “[n]o documented cases of induced seismicity have ever come close to the current earthquake rates or the area over which the earthquakes are occurring.”
Though the link between earthquakes and wastewater injection keeps getting stronger and stronger, it’s not yet definitive. Thus far, the research has lacked data on sub-surface pressure, which is rarely accessible. However, if available, that data could take the science further than merely noting correlations between when earthquakes happen, when wastewater injection happens, and where faults are located.
Most scientists do increasingly believe that the wastewater injection process is causing the increase in quakes. According to the research so far, the large amount of water that is injected into the ground after a well is fracked can change the state of stress on existing fault lines to the point of failure, causing earthquakes. Wastewater injection is used in both conventional drilling and fracking, but happens much more during fracking because of the large amounts of water fracking requires.