On January 11, 2015 Oklahoma residents from Edmond and Oklahoma City filed suit against twelve energy companies, alleging that the defendants caused or contributed to seismic activity, though no scientific evidence is cited. Felts, et al. v. Devon Energy, et al., No. CJ-2016-137 (Okla. Cnty. Dist. Ct. filed Jan. 11, 2016). Plaintiffs assert negligence and strict liability claims, arguing that Defendants were the “but for” cause, or in the alternative, the proximate cause, of earthquakes in December and January, although the multiplicity of defendants sued may indicate a lack of evidence regarding causation. Plaintiffs claim property damage for cracks in walls, bricks and fascia, and foundation movement, though no specific instances are cited in the complaint. Plaintiffs also allege pain and suffering caused by “worry” over earthquake risks–a tenuous claim on which no earthquake plaintiff has ever succeeded. In addition, the lawsuit seeks punitive damages and an injunction against well operators.
The action comes shortly after Kyle Murray, the Oklahoma Geological Survey’s Hydrogeologist, released a report on December 31, 2015 noting continued uncertainty regarding fluid injection in the state. The report found, “Research must continue to focus on understanding geologic variability and properties of various zones, especially the Arbuckle Group because it is the primary disposal zone in Oklahoma.” Murray also noted gaps in understanding in the impact of fluid injection: “Fluid production and injection volumes must be calculated at a small- (i.e., county) scale to understand the relative pressure changes from 2009-2014 in various zones so that spatial trends can be examined. These data must then be integrated with other geologic data to better understand complex relationships between hydrogeology, geomechanics, seismology, market forces, operational changes, and regulatory controls.”
Meanwhile, neighboring Colorado is considering legislation to make oil and gas companies strictly liable for earthquakes. The debate over whether negligence or strict liability presents the appropriate liability standard for induced seismicity presents interesting public policy issues, with strict liability being criticized for failing to account for neither scientific evidence nor deterrence concerns. Differing legal frameworks in the states indicate divergence over whether strict liability, negligence, nuisance or trespass would govern in lawsuits involving allegations of man-made earthquakes.