Residents of a town hit by Oklahoma’s strongest earthquake have filed a class-action lawsuit against dozens of energy companies, accusing them of triggering destructive temblors by injecting wastewater from oil and natural gas production underground.
Pawnee residents filed the suit Thursday in district court against 27 companies, saying they operate wastewater injection wells even though they know the method causes earthquakes. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount for property damage and reduced value, plus emotional distress.
A magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the town of about 2,200 in September and the lawsuit claims 52 more have hit the area since. On Nov. 6, a magnitude 5.0 quake damaged dozens of buildings in nearby Cushing, a town that is home to one of the world’s largest oil hubs.
Oklahoma has had thousands of earthquakes in recent years, with nearly all traced to underground wastewater disposal. Some scientists say that the high-pressure injection of massive amounts of chemical-laced wastewater deep in the earth induces the quakes. Regulators have asked oil and gas producers to either close injection wells or reduce the volume of fluids they inject.
Residents and environmental groups in neighboring states have sued energy companies curb or stop similar operations. Quakes in north central Arkansas all but stopped after the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission voted to ban wells for the disposal of natural gas drilling fluids in July 2011. In 2014, a Prague, Oklahoma, resident sued two companies on the same grounds after a magnitude 5.6 temblor rattled her town in 2011.
Two of the companies identified in the Pawnee lawsuit, Eagle Road Oil, LLC and Cummings Oil Company, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday. The other 25 companies were not identified in the suit.
The lawsuit claims that companies are showing “reckless disregard for public or private safety,” by continuing to operate the injection wells in the area.
“We have clients who don’t allow their children to go upstairs because they’re afraid the roof will fall in on them,” said Curt Marshall, an attorney for the residents. “There’s a lot of fear; when is the next big one?”
Marshall estimated that hundreds of homes in Pawnee have been affected by the quakes, sustaining damage ranging from cracks in walls, foundations and storm shelters to short-circuited electrical outlets.
A 2015 study by the U.S. Geological Survey suggested that Oklahoma’s industrial activities, such as natural gas and oil production, have caused the sharp rise in earthquakes in the past 100 years.
Despite the criticism of wastewater disposal, Oklahoma oil and gas producers said Friday they are enthusiastic about new drilling opportunities in two recently discovered oil-and-gas rich sites in south-central Oklahoma that don’t produce large amounts of wastewater.
The South Central Oklahoma Oil Province, centered in three counties southwest of Oklahoma City, and the Sooner Trend Anadarko Basin Canadian and Kingfisher Counties west of Oklahoma City, are among the nation’s largest oil and gas fields.
Another Suit: Pawnee Nation lawsuit asks that drilling permits be voided
The Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma has filed a lawsuit against the federal government to void drilling permits for oil and natural gas wells on tribal land that the tribe alleges cause earthquakes in northern Oklahoma.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa on Friday, a day after Pawnee residents filed their lawsuit in state court against 27 energy companies.
The federal lawsuit claims drilling permits and leases on tribal-owned lands held in trust have been improperly approved by the Interior Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“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 alleges.
A 5.8-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 3 was centered about nine miles northwest of Pawnee. The earthquake damaged structures in Pawnee, including many of the Pawnee Nation’s administrative buildings, the lawsuit alleges. It also prompted the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to order 37 injection wells near the quake epicenter to temporarily shut down.
The approval of the challenged oil and gas drilling permits has occurred despite an October 2015 tribal ban on new wells in Payne and Pawnee counties, the lawsuit states.
The tribal resolution adopting the moratorium described hydraulic fracturing as a “new, vastly different, and highly destructive land use posing threats of earthquakes, water pollution and impacts to Indian water rights,” according to the lawsuit.
“The subsurface pressures from that injected waste have caused a wave of disposal-induced earthquakes in northern Oklahoma,” it says.
The Pawnee Nation, headquartered in Pawnee, has about 3,200 members.