Sierra Club makes induced seismicity claims against energy companies in federal lawsuit under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

Days after a 5.1 magnitude quake shook Oklahoma on February 13, 2016, a federal suit claiming induced seismicity was filed. Sierra Club v. Chesapeake Operating LLC, et al., No. CIV-16-134-F, (W.D. Okla. filed Feb. 16, 2016). The suit, filed under the citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a)(1)(B), is brought on behalf of Sierra Club members in Oklahoma and Kansas who have allegedly suffered property damage from earthquakes. The complaint claims earthquakes allegedly induced by the injection and disposal of oil and gas production wastes into the ground violate RCRA. The suit seeks only injunctive relief.

The case may face numerous jurisdictional challenges, including abstention concerns. In particular, although the plaintiff alleges wastewater may present an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment,” the prospective and speculative nature of the harm alleged may present standing difficulties for pursuing these claims in federal court. Furthermore, there is no precedent in earthquake litigation for a court to grant relief on the Sierra Club’s claims and novel demand for an injunction to reduce injection volumes, to reinforce vulnerable structures potentially impacted by a quake, and to establish an independent seismic monitoring and prediction center.

Oklahoma Corporation Commission issues regional injection reduction plan

On February 16, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission issued its largest injection well volume reduction plan to date to counter induced seismicity concerns. The directive reduces injection volume in Northwest Oklahoma by 40%. A total of 245 wells are targeted, many of them in the deep Arbuckle formation. The area affected covers 5,200 square miles. This is the Commission’s first directive to include areas not yet experiencing major earthquakes. Wells in Woods, Alfalfa, Grant, Harper, Woodward, Major and Garfield counties will be affected. 

Simultaneously with releasing the directive, the Commission’s Oil and Gas Conservation Division Director Tim Baker noted that emergency funding from Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and a new grant from the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board and the Groundwater Protection Council are enabling the Commission “to add badly needed equipment and staff.”  Bolstered by these additional resources, the Commission intends to “continue to focus on regional approaches as supported by the latest data.”