Will frackers be held liable for inducing earthquakes in Oklahoma?

A flare releases pressure from a natural gas fracking well in Oklahoma.  Photo: Joshua Pribanic.

A flare releases pressure from a natural gas fracking well in Oklahoma.  Photo: Joshua Pribanic.

Five years ago, before hydraulic fracturing became a common method to extract natural gas, Oklahoma recorded only three magnitude three earthquakes.  In 2015, Oklahoma recorded 907.  2016 is off to another record-breaking start: last week two earthquakes (magnitude 4.7 and 4.8) struck northern Oklahoma, where fracking dominates.  It's hard to predict if a larger earthquake will rock the state, but these recent quakes suggest that may be likely:

“I do think there’s a really strong chance that Oklahoma will receive some strong shaking,” said Daniel McNamara, a research geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado, who has followed the state’s quakes.  Referring to the shocks that occurred Wednesday night, he added, “I’m surprised it didn’t rupture into a larger event.”

Most experts believe the drastic increase in earthquake incidence is the result of forcing fracking wastewater into the ground.  While that process is effective in disposing of fracking waste, it also disturbs fault lines.  In some cases, especially in Oklahoma, these disturbances become earthquakes.  

But while the science is clear to some in a broad "A is causing B" sense (fracking is causing earthquakes), the more specific causal connection between a particular fracking operator's activities causing damage to people or property is less clear.  It would be hard for a homeowner whose property has been damaged from an earthquake to present a strong scientific case that the earthquake was caused by a discrete defendant in order to assign liability and claim damages.   Some cases are already popping up, and in most of these property owners are suing a bundle of oil and gas companies in the hopes that they will be collectively responsible.  In regions where more than one company is injecting wastewater underground, that may be the strongest approach, but it dilutes the causal connection.

An added difficulty in these cases is the reality that, in most states, injecting water into the ground is illegal or negligent behavior.  In Oklahoma, neither the state legislature or the governor have taken any meaningful action to curb fracking activities.  Only the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has been assigned to propose restraints, and it has limited regulatory powers:

With no explicit authority to regulate seismic issues, the commission has persuaded producers to voluntarily follow a series of ever-stricter directives on waste disposal in earthquake zones. But while those orders appear to have curtailed earthquakes in some areas, the overall number has continued to soar.  Last month, a financially troubled producer in the northern oil and gas fields struck by Wednesday’s quakes, SandRidge Energy Incorporated, broke industry ranks and refused the commission’s request to scale back its underground waste disposal.

Professor Blake Watson (Dayton) believes courts should impose strict liability on fracking producers on the grounds that groundwater injection is inherently dangerous - a finding that would eliminate the need to show that producers were negligent in their activities.  The downside is that courts aren't the ideal branch of government to sift through scientific studies emerging in real-time and impose liability after-the-fact.  Ideally a strong administrative agency would do so.  In many cases they have proved effective:

In recent years, other states with oil and gas exploration have also seen an unusual number of earthquakes. State authorities quickly suspected that the earthquakes were linked to disposal wells. In Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, after dozens of smaller quakes culminated in a 4.0, a nearby disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes stopped. Around the same time, in Arkansas, a series of earthquakes associated with four disposal wells in the Fayetteville Shale led to a ban on disposal wells near related faults. Earthquakes were also noted in Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. There, too, relevant disposal wells were shut down or the volume of fluid injected was reduced and the earthquakes abated.

Absent a strong regulatory agency, though, property owners may have no other recourse than to pursue compensation through litigation, however challenging causation arguments may prove to be.  If Oklahoma's agencies continue to meekly regulate fracking activities and wastewater injection, we'll soon find out how the courts address induced-earthquake liability.

Disaster Law and Displacement in Nepal, Ctd

Fresh off its 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal today about 80km to the east of the capital, Kathmandu.  The aftershock further exacerbates the displacement of populations who have been without meaningful shelter for weeks.

As detailed after the April 25 quake, building codes and construction standards have an enormous impact on the final death tolls.  In this case, it appears that many children were spared from the quake because the Nepalese government had wisely chosen to close what schools and colleges remained upright until May 14 in order to inspect their integrity.  While sustained school closures present short-term disruptions to youth development and education, the regulation in this case may have been worth the short-term costs.  

As if the April 25 quake wasn't enough, this is another reminder to rapidly developing countries in the region to get their building codes, construction standards, and disaster management plans in order.  

Disaster Law and Displacement, Nepal Edition

Disaster Law and Displacement, Nepal Edition

Earlier this month I wrote about displacement and disaster in Haiti, highlighting some legal obstacles that were (and still are) frustrating efforts to reduce displaced populations after the 2010 earthquake.  The legal framework was weak on three fronts: domestically, building codes were not optimized for seismic activity and rarely enforced, while property documentation processes were confusing; regionally, while the Dominican Republic pledged aid at first, long-running tensions emerged eventually; and internationally the NGO and intergovernmental community operated without meaningful checks and balances.  

On Saturday, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, with an epicenter roughly 80 kilometers from the capital and most populous city, Kathmandu.  Compare that to Haiti's 7.0 magnitude earthquake 25 km from Port au Prince, Haiti's capital and most populous city, and the seismology looks similar.  But vulnerability is a product not only of earthquake strength and duration, but population and property preparedness as well.  A comparison between rich and poor countries illustrates the dynamic quite well (see chart below the jump).

So far the impact of the earthquake in Nepal - and immediate relief efforts - appear to be mirroring the Haitian experience.  The death toll (so far) is lower than estimated for the region, but hundreds of thousands of survivors are sprawled across large tent cities near Kathmandu, with power, freshwater, food, and hospital services being stretched thin.  International relief agencies are pouring into the country, and the relief effort will inevitably become a rebuilding project, with familiar echoes of Haiti's infamous "Build Back Better" campaign.   Given the impending transition in Nepal, it's worth comparing the lessons of Haiti's experience with the Nepalese context.  

Low building code standards and enforcement

Nepal ranks near the bottom in a list of countries on preparedness for natural disasters.  Despite being located on a known fault-line, Kathmandu, like Port au Prince, did not develop stringent building codes, zoning laws, or urbanization management plans to mitigate risk.  What plans do exist have not been enforced.  According to The Atlantic's City Lab:

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The Law of Disaster and Displacement in Haiti (Part I)

The Law of Disaster and Displacement in Haiti (Part I)

This is the first in a three-part series about disaster and displacement in Haiti.  Read the rest of the series: Part IIPart III

Port-au-Prince is Haiti’s capital and most populous city, with a metropolitan population of nearly 2.5 million.  On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake struck 25 kilometers southwest of the city.  An additional 52 aftershocks with a magnitude of at least 4.5 followed.  The island of Hispaniola – which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic – is no stranger to extreme natural events like earthquakes and tropical cyclones, but the 2010 earthquake was unprecedented in its destructive impact.   Death toll estimates range from 100,000 - 300,000.   Critical infrastructure designed to respond to disasters (e.g., hospitals, roads, seaports, airports, communication systems) was destroyed.   Many of the city's other buildings - including private residences, government institutions, and business centers - were likewise completely or functionally destroyed.  In sum, Haiti’s largest city and the epicenter of government and economic activity was ground to a halt.

While recovering and respectfully disposing of the deceased proved trying, responding to the needs of the living became a challenge of epic proportions.  The United States Agency for International Development estimates that 1.5 million people were displaced into some 1,500 camps.  Many others forced to leave their homes sought refuge with family in other parts of the country.  And by almost all accounts, the response to displacement was inadequate.  A year after the earthquake 500,000 Haitians were still living in camps, and although the rough official number in 2014 was ‘only’ 100,000, the effect of displacement is persistent and hard to fully discern in a city where camps can be hard to distinguish from slums.  A 2014 survey found that 74% of families forced to leave their homes in 2010 still consider themselves displaced, even though they no longer live in displacement camps.   Meanwhile, life in the camps was ill-conceived: many had no electricity, clean water, sanitation facilities, or protection from the elements.  Sexual, domestic, and gang violence was common, and a cholera outbreak (likely introduced by foreign aid workers) exacerbated a fragile public health environment. 

The inadequacy of the response to displacement has many intertwined roots, the totality of which is still being uncovered.  One of the most distressing concerns for Haiti and the international community, however, was (and continues to be) the weak legal framework designed to mitigate and respond to extreme natural events. 

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