Valerie Branyan is thankful that she and her husband were together with their two children when the 5.3 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Cushing, Oklahoma, early in November. The couple clutched their kids, eyed the ceiling, and waited. While there were no injuries and only minor damage to their home, properties they own near downtown didn’t fare so well. The brickwork of one building toppled to the street, while a third building housing their family business suffered more than $100,000 in ruined walls and structural damage.
Then, a few days later, residents reported another tremor. And then another, and another. More than 2,350 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater rocked Oklahoma between 2010 and 2016, making the state the most seismically active in the U.S., outpacing even California.
This isn’t tectonics. This is tampering. Studies link the recent flurry of Oklahoma earthquakes to oil companies injecting 160 million barrels of caustic wastewater into underground disposal wells every month. They saturate the sedimentary Arbuckle formation atop Oklahoma’s main fault zone, lubricating it and stuffing centuries worth of geologic activity into a cluster of turbulent years.
The havoc is hardly subtle, and residents’ cries for intervention have not been quiet, yet former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who was just confirmed to head the EPA, did nothing to discourage well injections while soaking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from industry polluters. State officials know the science, but oil revenue drives the state; disposal-well operators are still applying for approval of new injection sites. Meanwhile, Oklahoma residents are getting impatient.
Andrew Knife Chief is the executive director of the Pawnee Nation, which took a beating from a 5.8 magnitude tremor that caused $250,000 in damages to Pawnee Nation government buildings in September. This does not include additional damage to Pawnee homes.
“The state of Oklahoma has vehemently denied the link between modern drilling techniques and earthquakes,” Knife Chief said. “These guys are beholden to the energy companies. The energy companies provide a lot of jobs for the state of Oklahoma; however, there comes a point when common sense and reason should outweigh your efforts to delude the public.”
That common sense never reached Pruitt, a self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” who closed the environmental enforcement unit in his office and established a legal team to challenge federal agencies, according to EPA sources. He has sued the EPA 14 times to challenge environmental regulations. He even reprinted industry arguments under his agency letterhead and forwarded them to the EPA.
Insurance companies, unlike Pruitt, acknowledge the tremors’ cause, evidenced by the way they jettisoned coverage for earthquakes “not naturally occurring.” Some homeowner policies also contain “anti-concurrent causation provisions,” which allow insurance companies to deny a covered loss, like fire, if it resulted from a human-caused earthquake. Since the federal government never declared a state of emergency on Oklahoma quakes, local families have few options.
“We pay as we go,” Branyan said. “Everything we’ve earned has gone back into making our business better and hiring new people. We can’t afford the repairs we’ve got to do next. Meanwhile, these oil companies get rich. We employ people and contribute to the economy, too. What about us?”
Knife Chief said many residents are not sure whether they should repair because of the tremors’ unrelenting frequency.
“Heck, a half hour before you called … we had another earthquake hit us. We have about two a day. This last one that hit just this afternoon was pretty big,” Knife Chief said. “We’re still having earthquakes all the time, which means the adjuster has to keep running back out and making a new adjustment.”
Scott Poynter, an attorney with Arkansas law firm Poynter Law Group, said that without vital repairs, each tremor — however small — still inches buildings closer to collapse. Eventually, even a small tremor could drop a ceiling.
High bills, limited options, and risks pressed Poynter Law Group to join Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys in representing Pawnee, Cushing, and Prague residents in a class action lawsuit to collect reparations for home repairs. The suit against Cher Oil Company, Crown Energy Company, Petrowarrior LLC, FHA Investments LLC, White Star Petroleum LLC, and 25 other Oklahoma oil and gas companies seeks damages and home value loss. Renown environmental activist Erin Brockovich partnered with Weitz & Luxenberg last year and now hosts town hall meetings across the state raising awareness.
Jeff Zanotti, general counsel with White Star Petroleum, said the company would not comment on matters in litigation.
The suit for damages is just one example of litigation facing oil companies. Poynter Law Group is also working with the Oklahoma Sierra Club on an injunctive relief case they hope will reduce future damage. The Sierra Club suit argues that oil companies’ well-injection methods violate national waste-management law.
“We want them to do what’s necessary to stop the earthquakes and eliminate the substantial risk of even more damaging earthquakes,” Poynter said. “We’re asking for lower [injection] volume, lower [injection] pressure, moratoriums in places with reactivated faults, better regulation and development of proper infrastructure.”
The Pawnee Nation in November filed their own suit against the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management.
Knife Chief said the agencies issued permit approvals without complying with tribal natural resource protection laws or consulting with the Pawnee Nation. He claims agencies ignored both a 2015 Pawnee moratorium on new oil and gas permits and the consequences of drilling in problem areas.
“We as a nation have the right to know who is on our land and what they’re doing, and we have a right to know the impact of this behavior,” Knife Chief said. “We are a tribal government of laws. We have our own environmental regulatory codes and the ability to enforce codes. We also have a tribal court and everything in place to make sure these [drillers] are doing what they say they’re going to do.”
As attorneys get prepared, people inside the quake zone are bracing for the next toppled chimney or fallen wall.