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Federal lawsuit planned against four oil and gas companies by Sierra Club of Oklahoma

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Scott Poynter, of The Poynter Law Group in Little Rock, Ark.
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Litigation aimed at stopping use of wastewater injection wells, attorney says

OKLAHOMA CITY – A federal lawsuit will be filed next month against four Oklahoma oil and gas companies as they continue pushing production wastewater underground and creating more earthquakes, according to an attorney involved in the case.

The four oil and gas companies already have been served with a notice that the Sierra Club of Oklahoma and Public Justice intends to file the lawsuit. The companies are Sandridge Energy, Chesapeake, New Dominion and Devon Energy. The lawsuit will be filed under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The lawsuit will seek an immediate moratorium on oil and gas companies using wastewater injection wells in Oklahoma.

Central and northern Oklahoma has been plagued by earthquakes as more saltwater injection wells are used to dump toxic water obtained from oil production.

“We’re not out to kill the industry,” said Scott Poynter, of The Poynter Law Group in Little Rock, Ark. “We want to work out a resolution for everyone. This is no slam dunk. If we don’t work something out, we are going to have 5.0s and if that happens in Cushing, it would be devastating.”

Cushing is the world’s largest and most important crude oil storage hub with more than 50 million barrels of crude. The city also is located over long-dormant faults beneath the oil storage complex, according to the Sierra Club’s notice to sue. Several earthquakes with magnitudes of 4 or greater have occurred near the storage facility.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is taking the issue seriously after gauging potential earthquake dangers to the hub. The department concluded that a quake equivalent to the record magnitude of 5.7 could significantly damage the storage tanks, the attorneys wrote in the notice to sue.

But Cushing isn’t the only concern.

“Can you imagine the devastation if one that big hit Oklahoma City or perhaps around Stillwater where you have a college campus and (high-rise) dormitories with students? Significant injuries could occur,” Poynter said.

So far, the oil and gas industry has not been receptive to the link between disposal wells and the hundreds of earthquakes that measure at least 3.0 on the Richter scale. The industry has claimed so far the science fails to show a cause and effect.

“That mantra has been going on for the last 50 years,” Poynter said.

Still, Poynter is optimistic the oil and gas companies will eventually seek a solution that keeps them operating and Oklahoma residents safe from catastrophic earthquakes and damages to homes.

“I think they will be willing to work together,” he said. “All sides of this are suffering.”

Poynter and his team are hoping to find alternatives to pumping wastewater into wells drilled near fault lines.

“They could use ponds but that can be dangerous to drinking water or they could drill wastewater wells away from fault lines and that costs more money,” he said. “But those are options and that’s what we want them to consider.”

This isn’t the first time Poynter has been involved in this type of fight. In Arkansas, Poynter sued oil and gas companies, including Chesapeake, and was granted a moratorium on the use of injection wells in the central portion of the state. Almost immediately, the earthquakes stopped.

Meanwhile, the notice to sue demands the companies substantially reduce the amount of wastewater injected into the ground to levels that seismologist believe will not cause increased earthquake frequency. In addition, the Sierra Club of Oklahoma wants the oil and gas firms to reinforce vulnerable structures that could be hit by large magnitude earthquakes during the interim and establish an independent earthquake monitoring and prediction center to analyze how much production waste can be injected without inducing earthquakes.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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