Two energy companies asked a judge Wednesday to throw out a lawsuit by an Oklahoma woman who claims she was injured in an earthquake caused by the injection of wastewater deep into the ground – a long-used method to dispose of the chemical-laced byproduct of oil and gas production.
The lawsuit by Prague resident Sandra Ladra alleges the companies are liable because they operated wastewater disposal wells that triggered the largest earthquake in state history, a 5.6-magnitude temblor that hit in 2011. Ladra, who claims the quake crumbled her two-story fireplace and caused rocks to fall on her legs and gash her knee, is among others who have similar lawsuits pending elsewhere in the country.
Ladra is suing Oklahoma-based Spess Oil Co. and New Dominion LLC, as well as 25 unidentified parties. Her case was given new life in June when the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned a decision by Lincoln County District Judge Cynthia Ferrell Ashwood, who had dismissed the suit on the grounds that the court didn’t have jurisdiction in the matter.
Ashwood, who also presided over Wednesday’s hearing, took the matter under advisement and did not issue an immediate ruling.
The companies want the lawsuit dismissed because they say Ladra waited too long to file it.
Energy companies claim the litigation could cripple oil and gas production in Oklahoma, where the economy is tied to the industry. Regulation proponents say the lawsuits could result in safer drilling practices.
Scientists have linked injection of wastewater to the sharp rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey traced wastewater injection methods to the 1920s in Oklahoma and tied the rise in quakes in the past 100 years to industrial activities, such as oil and natural gas production. About 1.5 billion barrels of wastewater was disposed underground in Oklahoma last year, according to statistics released by the governor’s office.
A swarm of earthquakes has recently rumbled through the north-central swath of the state, one with a 4.7 magnitude. In response, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s oil and gas division has proposed ways for wastewater disposal well operators in that area to halt or reduce volume.
Scott E. Poynter, Ladra’s lead attorney, said the scientific studies linking injection wells to earthquakes – and a state agency that recently said it’s “very likely” the cause – bolsters her claim.
“When you look at the actual science and you look at the data, you can’t help but go, ‘It’s the injection wells, stupid.’ It’s just that obvious,” Poynter said. “Oklahoma shouldn’t have more earthquakes than anywhere on the planet, but it does.”
Bob Gum, an attorney for New Dominion, said current wastewater disposal methods are the most modern and efficient as possible. A lawyer for Spess Oil didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Some industry representatives and oil and gas producers acknowledge that some of the earthquakes in Oklahoma are caused by human action, but warn against generalizing that all of them have been triggered by their practices.
Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, which represents many of the larger companies exploring in the state, said the correlation needs further study and a way to strike “a balance of injecting and producing without an increase in seismic activity.”
Kim Hatfield, president of Crawley Petroleum, which operates in Oklahoma and Texas, said the ramifications of lawsuits such as Ladra’s could weaken the energy industry in Oklahoma and have devastating economic consequences.
“Are you familiar with ‘The Grapes of Wrath’? This would make that look like a comedy,” Hatfield said. “That would be a self-inflicted wound of tremendous magnitude for the state, and oil companies will say,’We’re not going to drill in Oklahoma.’
“It would be a tragedy of just monumental proportions,” he said.
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