On Saturday, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake rattled northwest Oklahoma, the third strongest earthquake on record for a state that has seen a remarkable uptick in seismic activity since 2008. In addition to an uptick in the number of earthquakes, Oklahoma has seen an increase in the severity of earthquakes in recent years, and experts warn that it’s only a matter of time until an earthquake of potentially historic magnitude strikes.
Scientists, environmental groups, and Oklahoma residents have all pointed to the state’s oil and gas industry as the culprit behind the sudden increase in earthquakes. Specifically, they point to the disposal of salty wastewater that comes up as a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, which, when injected into underground wells along fault lines, has been linked to an increase in seismic activity.
In an effort to curb the state’s earthquake problem, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas production in the state, has told oil and gas companies to reduce the amount of waste water that they inject into underground disposal wells. Homeowners have also sought to reclaim some damages by suing oil and gas companies, something that the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled was legally allowed last year. But neither tactic has done much to limit the amount of wastewater injected into wells by oil and gas companies, or stopped the onslaught of earthquakes that have become an almost daily occurrence in the state.
Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club is trying a different approach, alleging that three oil and gas companies are in violation of a federal waste management law, and are endangering Oklahoma residents and the environment in the process.
“This is purely a lawsuit for injunction of relief,” Richard Webster, a senior attorney with the nonprofit law firm Public Justice, which is representing the Sierra Club in the lawsuit, told ThinkProgress. “Whereas damages lawsuits look backwards, we’re looking forward here, to try to prevent future damage.”
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, is a federal law that creates guidelines for the proper management and disposal of both hazardous and non-hazardous waste in the United States. Normally, RCRA applies to contamination cases, where an entity has disposed of its waste in such a way that it creates a contamination that endangers public health or the environment, like a dairy operation whose manure leeches into groundwater, contaminating drinking water with nitrates.
Applying RCRA to earthquakes caused by wastewater injection, Webster said, has never been done before. Essentially, it’s a more direct way to apply RCRA, cutting out the contamination middleman. The issue, Webster said, is proving that the disposal method — in this case wastewater leftover from fracking — is endangering public health or the environment.
“This is clearly a waste disposal activity, and it’s very clear these are waste disposal laws, so it’s at the heart of what RCRA covers as a statute,” he said. “We realize although that hasn’t been done before, there’s no reason why we can’t do it.”
According to a Stanford study released last year, the amount of wastewater injected into underground disposal wells in Oklahoma has roughly doubled over the last two decades, climbing from 80 million barrels per month in 1997 to about 160 million barrels per month in 2013. But in three areas of the state that have seen the greatest increase in earthquake activity, the increase in wastewater disposal is even more marked, jumping from 1.6 million barrels per month in 1997 to more than 33 million barrels per month in 2013. These disposal sites are located near the the Arbuckle formation, a 7,000-foot-deep sedimentary formation located in central Oklahoma that also happens to sit directly above a rock layer that covers Oklahoma’s main fault zone. The researchers speculate that an increase in wastewater injection has increased the pressure placed on those fault lines, causing the fault lines to slip more easily, which in turn has lead to an increase in earthquakes.
Unlike previous lawsuits filed by homeowners, which seek to reclaim damages caused by earthquakes, the Sierra Club lawsuit wants to stop future damages altogether. Primarily, the lawsuit asks that three oil and gas companies — New Dominion, Chesapeake Operating and Devon Energy Production Company — immediately reduce the amount of wastewater that they dispose of via injection wells. The lawsuit also asks that the companies reinforce structures that are vulnerable to earthquake damage, and that the state of Oklahoma establish an independent forecasting body to determine the amount of wastewater that can be safely injected into a specific disposal well without inducing seismic activity.
“What’s already happening is pretty bad — there is already substantial damage from what has happened,” Webster said. “We’ve gotten lucky so far, and [now] it’s time to get smart.”