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Judge Dismisses Sierra Club Lawsuit Against Oil Companies Over Oklahoma Quakes

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma
An oil and gas operation in Logan County, Okla., in 2015.

A federal judge on Tuesday moved to dismiss a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against Oklahoma energy companies over earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity.

Through lawyers with public interest law firm Public Justice, the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit in 2016 in hopes the U.S. court would find that Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy and New Dominion violated federal waste management laws by operating injection wells that contributed to earthquake activity. The case was the first quake lawsuit brought in federal court.

The environmental group wanted the court to impose limits on injection wells, set up an independent earthquake monitoring center and force the energy firms to pay to reinforce vulnerable buildings.

In his order dismissing the federal case, Judge Stephen Friot with the U.S. District Court for the Western District in Oklahoma City said earthquake regulation should be left in the hands of state agencies and courts. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Friot said, has the technical expertise, and has already responded to the earthquake boom by issuing regulatory actions.

“The challenge of determining what it will take to meaningfully reduce seismic activity in and near the producing areas of Oklahoma is not an exact science, but it is no longer one of the black arts,” Friot wrote in the order. “This court is ill-equipped to outperform the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in advancing that science and putting the growing body of technical knowledge to work in the service of rational regulation.”

In a statement, Public Justice, said it was disappointed with the dismissal and will consider re-filing the Sierra Club’s lawsuit if the state backtracks on its earthquake response.

“The state allowed the oil and gas industry to operate unchecked in the past and the result was more powerful and more frequent earthquakes,” said Public Justice Executive Director Paul Bland. “If those patterns return, so will our commitment to holding those responsible for the damage and destruction accountable in the courts. If the oil and gas industry wreaks future havoc on the people and property of Oklahoma and the state backtracks on its obligations to them, we will once again step in.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state.
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