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Oklahoma Earthquake Surge Creates State vs. Local Regulatory Quandary

Maintenance workers inspect damage to Benedictine Hall at St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on Nov. 6, 2011. Two earthquakes in less than 24 hours caused a tower to topple and damaged the other three.

Maintenance workers inspect damage to Benedictine Hall at St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on Nov. 6, 2011. Two earthquakes in less than 24 hours caused a tower to topple and damaged the other three. Sue Ogrocki / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

And it’s not surprising that it’s resulting in litigation for the courts to sort out.

Following a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in November 2011 east of Oklahoma City and continued seismic activity is drilling-rich areas of the Sooner State, some local governments contemplated new regulations on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, and other oil and gas drilling activity.

But Oklahoma state lawmakers stepped in with a new law preempting communities from taking action.

With local government boxed out of regulating the industry, and with earthquakes on the rise—many seismologists believe the tremors are induced by wastewater injection associated with the fracking process—the issue unsurprisingly moved to the courts.

In an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling from this summer, justices ruled that homeowners who have sustained injuries or property damage from earthquakes they say are caused by oil and gas operations can sue for damages in state trial courts.

Now a district court judge in that state is contemplating a case brought by a woman from the tiny town of Prague, about halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City—who claims the November 2011 quake that damaged her two-story fireplace and caused rocks to fall on her legs and gash her knee.

Last week, Oklahoma-based Spess Oil Co. and New Dominion LLC asked the judge to throw the case out, arguing that the plaintiff waited too long to file the lawsuit, according to the Insurance Journal.

To dispose of the immense amount of water used during fracking, companies inject it underground. Scientists increasingly believe the injections are disrupting faults and triggering earthquakes, most of them minor.

The state historically had just one or two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year. But during a boom in fracking over the past decade, that number has risen to 585 last year, more than in any other state except Alaska.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Scott Poynter, told the Insurance Journal that even the state government believes the scientific evidence that fracking has led to an increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma.

“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,” he said. “Oklahoma shouldn’t have more earthquakes than anywhere on the planet, but it does.”

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, countered that their needs to be more study of the problem before a direct correlation is drawn.

In an interview with State Impact Oklahoma earlier this year, Stillwater City Attorney John Dorman said local officials started drafting new rules to regulate fracking before lawmakers stepped in.

“Stillwater's current oil and gas ordinances date back into the the 1970s,” he said.

The new state law made local regulations illegal.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin told The Oklahoman that the state is in the best position to regulate the oil and gas industry, not cities and towns. Last year she established the Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity to study the issue of increased seismic activity and its relation to fracking.

“We want to do it wisely without harming the economic activity we certainly enjoy and the revenue, quite frankly, we certainly enjoy,” she said.

Meanwhile, oil and gas companies are watching the litigation wind its way through Oklahoma’s legal system with trepidation. They worry a verdict for the plaintiff could cripple the industry.

“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,’” Kim Hatfield, president of Crawley Petroleum, told the Insurance Journal.

Jason Hancock is a journalist based in Jefferson City, Mo.

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