E&E: EARTHQUAKES: Drillers face first class-action suit for triggered temblors

Mike Soraghan, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, July 5, 2012

This is only the latest in a string of negative environmental consequences due to fracking. The inordinate amount of fresh water used is also a big concern. I think fracking should be outlawed. DV

What may be the first class-action suit against oil and gas companies for unleashing earthquakes is working its way through the federal courts in Arkansas.

The suit stems from a “swarm” of earthquakes as strong as magnitude 4.7 that rattled the northern part of the state. The quakes prompted state officials last summer to ban drilling waste disposal wells in a 1,150-square-mile area. Four wells ceased operations. The people who brought the suits and their attorneys say the companies knew about the risk of earthquakes from their operations but did not do enough to prevent them. “Defendants, experienced in these operations, were well aware of the connection between injection wells and seismic activity, and acted in disregard of these facts,” says the suit, filed by the Little Rock class-action firm Emerson Poynter LLP on behalf of Stephen Hearn and several other residents of Faulkner County, Ark.

The suit says that the companies’ “ultrahazardous” actions have made residents fear for their safety and caused the cost of earthquake insurance to skyrocket. The suit names subsidiaries of Chesapeake Energy Corp., which operated two of the wells, and BHP Billiton, which acquired the wells from Chesapeake as part of a larger purchase in 2011. Spokesmen for the two companies declined comment, but each has filed blanket denials with the court.

A smaller well owner, Deep Six Water Disposal Services of Oklahoma, was dismissed from the case last week. Another well owner, Clarita Operating of Little Rock, filed for bankruptcy after the first suits were filed. Several class-action suits have been consolidated into the case under Hearn’s name. The case is currently in discovery and is scheduled for trial in March 2014. In a brief email exchange with EnergyWire, lead attorney Scott Poynter said he was not familiar with any other suits against drillers for causing earthquakes with disposal wells.

There is no federal law against causing earthquakes, but the suit alleges that the quakes were caused by negligence, amounted to trespassing and created a public nuisance (EnergyWire, June 18). Before two of the wells stopped operating in the spring of 2011, there were 85 earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.5 or higher. Since the shutdown there have been fewer quakes, according to the state Geological Survey. The state’s moratorium was based in part on the finding of University of Memphis seismologist Steve Horton, who said continued injection would risk a damaging earthquake in the area. He later published findings linking the earthquakes to drilling-waste wells.

The earthquakes were not linked to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” But fracturing creates millions of gallons of briny, toxic wastewater that drillers must eventually dispose of, usually by injecting it into the type of wells that are at the heart of the case. Advances in fracturing technology that involve blasting millions of gallons of water into production wells have led to a surge in gas production in shale formations such as Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale.

It is well understood among scientists that injecting wastewater underground — whether from energy production or something else — can lubricate faults and create earthquakes. But there are about 40,000 oil and gas disposal wells in the country, and only a few have been linked to earthquakes. There has never been a death or serious injury from such a quake. State officials in Ohio also shut down several waste injection wells earlier this year after linking a magnitude-4.0 quake and a host of smaller ones to a well in Youngstown.

Scientists are investigating whether other earthquakes in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas are linked to drilling activities such as waste injection. Seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey have suggested that some of those quakes, along with the Arkansas swarm, are part of a “remarkable” increase in the number of earthquakes in the middle of the country that is “almost certainly man-made” and likely linked to oil and gas operations (EnergyWire, March 29).

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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