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Environmental Groups Threaten Energy Companies With Lawsuit Over Earthquakes

A disposal well in Northern Oklahoma.
Joe Wertz
StateImpact Oklahoma

Environmental groups are threatening to file a federal lawsuit against four Oklahoma energy companies over earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity.

Scientists say the industry practice of pumping oil and gas waste fluid underground is likely responsible for Oklahoma’s earthquake boom.

Public Justice and the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club argue some of the pumping — known as injection — is illegal under the U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act because it may endanger the public and the environment.

Public Justice Executive Director Paul Bland says the groups are preparing a lawsuit because government regulators haven’t responded with enough force.

“Until an earthquake actually injures Kevin Durant personally, it seems like the state’s not going to do anything,” he says. “Private citizens are allowed under federal law to bring a case, where someone is endangering the public, to ask the court to step in and stop it, and that’s what we’re doing.”

In a letter dated Oct. 29, lawyers representing the environmental groups notified Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, New Dominion and Sandridge Energy of their intent to file a lawsuit after 90 days — a legal requirement and the first step in filing a lawsuit under RCRA.

In the letter, lawyers for the environmental groups name three actions the energy companies must take to prevent the lawsuit:

1) Immediately substantially reduce the amounts of Production Wastes they are injecting into the ground to levels that seismologists believe will not cause or contribute to increased earthquake frequency and severity. At minimum, the current rates of injection, particularly into the Arbuckle Formation, must be reduced substantially to cause a major reduction in the current unacceptable earthquake risks; 2) Reinforce vulnerable structures that current forecasts show could be hit by large magnitude earthquakes during the interim period; 3) Establish an independent earthquake monitoring and prediction center to analyze and forecast how much Production Wastes can be injected without inducing earthquakes and track how closely the ongoing earthquakes conform to predictions. This may involve further investigation and characterization of the underlying rock, including the Arbuckle Formation.

Fred Buxton, a vice president and general counsel for New Dominion declined to comment on pending litigation. The other three companies didn’t respond to interview requests.

The federal RCRA law was enacted in 1976 to regulate the disposal of solid waste, which includes sludges, liquids and semisolid substances discarded by industrial and mining operations. If a lawsuit is filed, the environmental groups will argue drilling waste fluid is covered under RCRA.

Environmental groups have had some success focusing on RCRA in lawsuits seeking tougher pollution rules and enforcement, including the management and disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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