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In Oklahoma, People Are Suing Fracking Companies After Earthquakes Damaged Their Houses

The state’s fracking boom has also resulted in an enormous number of earthquakes. Now people want the energy companies to pay for the recovery.

In Oklahoma, People Are Suing Fracking Companies After Earthquakes Damaged Their Houses
[Photos: J Pat Carter/Getty Images]

On November 7, a 5.0-magnitude earthquake struck the small town of Cushing, Oklahoma. In the next 30 days, there were 43 more earthquakes in the area.

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As in the rest of Oklahoma, earthquakes were incredibly rare in Cushing before 2009, when the rise of fracking and injecting wastewater underground and the rise of earthquakes began simultaneously. Now something else is becoming more common in Oklahoma: Lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies whose operations are the likely cause of all the quakes.

In Cushing–a quintessential oil town that calls itself the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” and where there are storage tanks that can hold 90 million barrels of crude–a group of citizens filed a class-action suit against local oil and gas companies on December 6.

That came about a month after residents in Pawnee, Oklahoma, filed a similar class-action suit over a 5.8-magnitude earthquake there (the state’s biggest earthquake ever). If more large earthquakes happen in the state–which is likely–more suits are likely to follow.

In the Cushing and Pawnee suits, if the class-action suits move forward, anyone who’s property was damaged in one of the earthquakes will be able to join the suit.

At some houses and businesses, brick chimneys crumbled after the quakes, roofs sagged, and doors no longer close because they’re skewed. In other cases, the entire house is damaged.

“In some instances, there’s so much structural damage that you don’t know where to begin, and it’s probably going to end up being a teardown,” says Curt Marshall, associate attorney at Weitz & Luxenberg, a firm litigating several earthquake lawsuits in Oklahoma.

One of the clients in Cushing had an estimate of $65,000-$75,000 in repairs after the recent quake. “He’s lucky because he’s got earthquake insurance,” says Marshall. “However, who knows if the insurance carrier will honor the claim. Everyone is pointing to the fact that these are human-induced, not acts of God. And so a lot of insurance companies are disclaiming coverage because they’re not insuring for this kind of risk.”

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Even with coverage, the client still has a $10,000 deductible–and after a claim, would likely be dropped from coverage, so he wouldn’t have protection in future earthquakes.

Earthquakes are becoming both more common and more severe in the state as more and more oil and gas companies inject wastewater deep underground.

“They inject it way down near what they call the basement, where all the fault lines are,” Marshall says. “So these fault lines that have been dormant for millennia have now been awakened and sort of lubricated.”

Until 2008, the state had one or two 3.0-magnitude quakes a year. In 2015, it had 857. In Cushing, since the quake on November 7, there has already been another 4.0-magnitude earthquake and a 3.6-magnitude tremor.

In a separate federal lawsuit, Weitz & Luxenberg is suing to try to get a declaration that the oil and gas companies’ business practices are “an imminent and substantial danger to public health and the environment,” and to require operators to immediately reduce how much wastewater is being sent underground.

Because lawsuits move slowly–and the two class-action lawsuits in Cushing and Pawnee are brand-new–they haven’t had much effect on fracking companies yet. Marshall thinks they may not change the way they do business until they lose in court. “It wouldn’t surprise me that they don’t change their operating procedures until they’re forced to be accountable and actually pay,” he says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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