When it comes to environmental problems, Oklahoma’s in denial. The state keeps sending Jim Inhofe - the man who calls climate change a “fraud,” and says it can be disproven by the ongoing existence of snow – to the U.S. Senate. But the state is suffering through a new, extreme series of events that only the most blind or craven politicians, and their friends in the oil and gas companies, can claim is natural. Oklahoma has endured an enormous upswing in earthquakes of increasing intensity, because of the waste dumped into the ground from fracking and oil production. As the evidence has become more overwhelming, the oil companies have become more insistent that they play no role in this huge change that is taking the state’s historic culture of environmental denial to a whole new level.
Until very recently, Oklahoma was a place with very little seismic activity. Prior to 2009, the maximum number of earthquakes in Oklahoma was 167 in a year, and nearly all of those were tiny and hardly noticeable. Once fracking and oil production came to Oklahoma, however, bringing with it the high pressure injection of enormous quantities of waste water into the ground, everything changed. In 2014, there were more than 5,000 earthquakes in Central and Northern Oklahoma. There will be more this year. And the new swarm of earthquakes includes quite a few that are dramatically more powerful than those of the past.
The reason is not mysterious. The evidence is overwhelming: This increase in earthquakes is the result of fracking and oil production, or, more specifically, the injection and disposal of waste fluids from fracking and oil production. These waste fluids are being injected into the ground at a high volume (tens of millions of gallons), under pressure, and at a high rate. And in Oklahoma, certain oil companies are injecting waste water into geological formations that are vulnerable.
There is a particular geological feature – the Arbuckle formation – where the injection of fracking and oil production wastes is reawakening a long-dormant series of fault lines, leading to swarms of earthquakes that have already caused more than a dozen homes and a part of one historic building to collapse. Despite a few token efforts by the regulators in Oklahoma, the problem is getting worse. A few weeks ago, a strong earthquake shattered nerves when it struck the oil storage area in Cushing, one of the largest in the world. Although the disposal wells get “permits” from the state, the State permitting program has protected the fracking companies more effectively than they have Oklahoma citizens. EPA has complained about the situation, but has not taken action. Now, concerned local citizens and environmentalists are.
My public interest law firm, Public Justice, along with a group of star environmental protection lawyers, has filed a “notice letter” with four oil companies telling them that if they (or the government) don’t take a series of specified actions within the next 90 days to stop the injection of waste waters that are contributing to the massive increase in earthquakes, we will file suit against them. The letter sets out detailed evidence – including some eye-popping charts and maps that dramatize how serious this problem is.
Our client is the Oklahoma Chapter of the nationally respected Sierra Club, and our case will be filed under a federal statute called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or “RCRA.” This is one of America’s most important environmental laws. It says that if a company contributes to the handling of wastes in a manner that may present “an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment,” citizens can bring a lawsuit to force the companies to abate the endangerment by reducing or ending those dangerous practices.
The typical RCRA case has involved activities like dumping toxic pollutants that leak into water supplies, and other activity that threatens human health or the environment. But RCRA is broader than that. Public Justice recently won a major case where factory farms, which were dumping millions of gallons of manure in a way that threatened a community’s groundwater, were found to be in violation of RCRA. That victory led to three huge factory dairies in Washington state cleaning up their operations and greatly reducing pollution. We are also doing a case where toxic fumes from waste tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear site are poisoning workers. So while we are looking for a precedent-setting, groundbreaking (especially in this scenario) court decision finding that the handling of solid wastes is increasing the number and severity of earthquakes, our claims clearly fit the language of the statute (the injection of millions of gallons of waste water from fracking at high pressure in Oklahoma is causing an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment), and its purpose.
There have already been some serious local impacts from the dramatic surge in earthquakes. At least 16 houses have been destroyed, a university had an historic spire collapse on an old building, and one woman was injured while watching TV in her home when her fireplace fell during an earthquake. But it sure looks like far worse things are coming, if this pollution continues. The number of earthquakes of magnitude-3 or greater has soared by more than 300% since 2009. There have been a couple of earthquakes greater than magnitude-5 already, and studies show that an enormous increase in 5s and 6s are very likely, and that 7s are likely to begin appearing soon, too.
What does this mean? Well, the scale to classify earthquakes is logarithmic, meaning that a magnitude-4 quake is 10 times more powerful than a magnitude 3. A magnitude-5 quake is 100 times more powerful than a magnitude-3. If Oklahoma starts to see a number of 6s or 7s, it is likely to result in a lot of death and massive property damage.
Contributing to this is the fact that there are some very vulnerable facilities in the state. The most troubling possibility involves an incredibly huge oil storage complex in Cushing, Oklahoma. It is probably the most important crude oil storage hub in the world, storing oil piped in from across North America. As of last week, it held 53 million barrels of crude oil. There has already been a 4.5 earthquake this year within 100 miles of the Cushing complex. If a larger earthquake hits it directly, we could be looking at one of the worst oil disasters in history. This is exactly the kind of thing that we think creates an imminent and substantial endangerment to the environment and health.
Unfortunately, the State of Oklahoma had a “see no evil” approach to this problem for years, even as the number of earthquakes spiked dramatically after the fracking boom took off in 2009. At some point, the accumulating evidence became so overwhelming that the Oklahoma Geological Service was essentially forced to acknowledge that injections of waste water were causing more earthquakes of greater severity. Even so, the state has taken only very modest steps to act. My theory is that the state of Oklahoma will only take serious action if an earthquake personally injures Kevin Durant. But we’re not willing to wait that long, and we’ve put the state and the fracking companies on notice: take serious action now, or we will.