Oklahoma’s highest court is about to make a decision that could really shake up the way fracking companies do business in the state.
In the coming months, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court will decide whether two oil companies should be held financially responsible for injuries suffered by a woman during a 2011 earthquake thought to have been caused by drilling activity. If the woman’s lawsuit is successful, it could set a legal precedent for future earthquake claims against oil and gas companies in Oklahoma.
In other words, oil and gas wells in Oklahoma would “become economic and legal-liability pariahs,” attorney Robert Gum said in comments reported by the Tulsa World.
First, the back story. The lawsuit in question was brought by Sandra Ladra, a woman who lives in a small town called Prague. Ladra claims that on Nov. 5, 2011, she was sitting at home watching television with her family when a 5.6 magnitude intraplate earthquake struck, causing big 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 was taken to the emergency room and treated.
Then, two years later in March 2013, scientists from the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the U.S. Geological Survey published a peer-reviewed study in the journal Geology, linking the 2011 earthquake to a process called wastewater injection. During that process, companies take the leftover water used to drill wells and inject it deep into the ground.
The Geology findings were disputed by Oklahoma Geological Survey, which asserted that the Prague earthquake was more likely the result of natural causes. But at the same time, more studies across the country found connections between wastewater injection and earthquakes, including one which linked approximately 2,500 small Oklahoma earthquakes to the process.
Wastewater injection is used in both conventional drilling and fracking, but is much more prolific during fracking because of the vast amounts of wastewater produced. Scientists increasingly believe that 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.
To be sure, it’s not definitive that earthquakes have been caused by fracking wastewater injection. Thus far, the research has lacked data on sub-surface pressure, which is rarely accessible but could take the science further than merely noting correlations between the timing of earthquakes, the timing of wastewater injection, and the location of faults. But it is indisputable that Oklahoma has seen a rise in earthquakes since the fracking boom began — right now, the state averages about 10 small earthquakes per day. According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, “[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.”
In the wake of all that information, people who were injured in the 2011 Oklahoma quake began filing lawsuits against the companies thought to be responsible: Tulsa-based oil and gas company New Dominion LLC, and Cleveland, Oklahoma-based Spess Oil Co. In other states, similar lawsuits were filed, including two seeking class-action status against energy companies in Arkansas and Texas, the Tulsa World reported.
Ladra’s lawsuit was originally dismissed by a lower court — but not on the merits of her claim. A Lincoln County judge found that the case lacked jurisdiction, which in Ladra’s case meant that it was filed in the wrong court. That judge agreed with the oil companies that the case should have instead been filed with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, as the oil companies were operating under permits issued by that commission.
Ladra’s attorney’s disagree. The lawsuit claims the oil companies had knowledge that wastewater injection could cause seismic activity, and that knowledge represented “wanton or reckless disregard for public or private safety.” Because of that alleged disregard and negligence, Ladra’s attorneys claim the companies should be liable for at least $75,000 in personal injury costs and punitive damages.
Attorneys for both sides can at least agree on one thing: that the fact that the Supreme Court decided to take up the case means the earthquake issue is significant. “I think the court has recognized that it’s just potentially a very, very significant issue for the state, both for the economy and the industry as it relates to these wells and for the safety of the citizens,” Gum, who represents the oil and gas companies, told the Tulsa World. Scott Poynter, who represents Ladra, said the same. “I think the Supreme Court sees this is a current issue and it’s a very important issue.”