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Citizens Can Sue Fracking Companies for Earthquake Damage, Says Oklahoma Supreme Court

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Citizens Can Sue Fracking Companies for Earthquake Damage, Says Oklahoma Supreme Court

Oklahoma almost never used to have earthquakes. But in the last six years they've increased so much that last year the state surged past California as the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. Prior to 2009, the state averaged two quakes of greater than 3.0 magnitude annually. By 2014 that number had soared to 585, up from 109 in 2013.

The culprit? Scientists are convinced it's the wastewater injection wells that have accompanied the explosion of fracking in that state during the same time period.

Oil and gas company New Dominion is Prague, Oklahoma's biggest employer—and has been accused of causing damaging earthquakes from its wastewater injection wells. Photo credit: New Dominion

Now the Oklahoma Supreme Court has cleared the way for citizens to sue the oil and gas companies responsible for the wells. In a 7-0 decision, with two justices not voting, the court said that Sandra Ladra, a resident of Prague, Oklahoma, which was hit by a 5.6 magnitude earthquake on Nov. 5, 2011, could seek injuries for injuries she suffered in that tremor.

"On November 5, 2011, Appellant was at home in Prague, Oklahoma watching television in her living room with her family when a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck nearby," reads Ladra's complaint. "Suddenly, Appellant's home began to shake, causing rock facing on the two-story fireplace and chimney to fall into the living room area. Some of the falling rocks struck Appellant and caused significant injury to her knees and legs, and she was rushed immediately to an emergency room for treatment. She claims personal injury damages in excess of $75,000."

The industry said that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries and tends to be very friendly toward them, should deal with these cases. The state supreme court disagreed.

"The commission, although possessing many of the powers of a court of record, is without the authority to entertain a suit for damages,” the court found. “Private tort actions, therefore, are exclusively within the jurisdiction of district courts.”

That decision also clears the way for a second Prague citizen to sue for property damages. That plaintiff, Jennifer L. Cooper, is seeking class-action status, and if granted, tens of millions of dollars in damages could be awarded. Both plaintiffs are suing Tulsa-based New Dominion, which calls itself "the leader in harvesting hydrocarbons," and the smaller Spess Oil Co. of Cleveland, Oklahoma.

“It is refreshing to see that the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruling will not allow the oil and gas industry to skirt responsibility for the damage their earthquake-inducing practices have caused Oklahomans," said Food & Water Watch organizer Matt Ohloff.

"We know oil & gas wastewater disposal wells are causing the increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma, and those suffering from the property, physical and psychological damage from these earthquakes should receive full rewards directly from the responsible parties—oil & gas. And while it is a major victory that these lawsuits will be allowed to move forward, what we ultimately need is for the Oklahoma state legislature and Oklahoma Governor to enact a moratorium on oil & wastewater disposal wells to stop the earthquakes from happening in the first place," Ohloff continued.

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The Prague earthquake was the strongest ever felt in Oklahoma and was followed in the next few days by two more tremors of 5.0 magnitude or greater, destroying half a dozen homes and damaging more than 170 others in the town of about 2,300 people and the surrounding area, where New Dominion is the largest employer. One of its three field offices is located in Prague.

Back in 2012, eight months after the damaging quakes, Jean Antonides, New Dominion's vice president of exploration, said it was silly to think the company's injection wells caused the quakes.

"That's people watching too many Superman movies," Antonides scoffed to Energy & Environment Daily. "Some individuals pick only the data that serves their purpose."

He suggested the real cause of the quakes was heavy rains.

"When you have rainfall amounts of six inches over a few day period, these rainfalls cover a thousand square miles—that's a lot of weight," he said. "That much new weight—potentially trillions of tons—if it's along or across a fault, can be enough to cause an earthquake. If you change the weight, relative near surface, across that fault—either reducing the weight on one side, loading up the other side or vice versa, that could be the trigger point."

Scientists not employed by oil and gas companies have tied the increase in wastewater injection wells to increases in earthquakes. Image credit: Food & Water Watch

Other scientists not employed by oil and gas exploration companies don't agree with his theory.

"Large areas of the U.S. that used to experience few or no earthquakes have, in recent years, experienced a remarkable increase in earthquake activity that has caused considerable public concern as well as damage to structures,” the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said last year. “This rise in seismic activity, especially in the central U.S., is not the result of natural processes. Deep injection of wastewater is the primary cause of the dramatic rise in detected earthquakes and the corresponding increase in seismic hazard in the central U.S.”

With fossil fuel extraction booming in Oklahoma since the widespread use of fracking began around 2009, the state has been under pressure from oil and gas companies to downplay the connection between injection wells and earthquakes. For instance, in November 2013, University of  Oklahoma president David Boren requested that state seismologist Austin Holland meet with billionaire Harold Hamm of Oklahoma city-based Continental Resources, who is known as the founding father of the U.S. fracking boom.

Bloomberg reported, "“Hamm requested that Holland be careful when publicly discussing the possible connection between oil and gas operations and a big jump in the number of earthquakes, which geological researchers were increasingly tying to the underground disposal of oil and gas wastewater, a byproduct of the fracking boom that Continental has helped pioneer.”

Boren called the meeting "purely informational," but Holland said it was "just a little bit intimidating" and he subsequently dialed down making the connection publicly. However, state officials have been less and less able to deny the connection, as studies keep piling up making the connection both in Oklahoma and other states. Those studies provide ammunition for Ladra's and Cooper's attorneys as they are now cleared to press their cases in the courts.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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