Arkansas lawsuits will test link between fracking wastewater disposal and earthquakes

Arkansas lawsuits will test link between fracking wastewater disposal and earthquakes

Source: Cape Time, South Africa, August 28, 2013
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Tony Davis, a 54-year-old construction worker in central Arkansas, said he welcomed the boom in natural gas drilling that brought jobs and new businesses to his home town, starting about a decade ago. But that was before the earth shook.

In 2010 and 2011, the quiet farming town of Greenbrier, Arkansas, was rattled by a swarm of more than 1 000 minor earthquakes. The biggest, with a magnitude of 4.7, had its epicentre less than 450m from Davis’s front porch. “This should not be happening in Greenbrier,” Davis recalls thinking. He said the shaking damaged the support beams under an addition to his home.

Then came another surprise: University of Memphis and Arkansas Geological Survey scientists said the quakes were likely triggered by the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, into deep underground wells. That finding prompted regulators from the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission to order several wells in the area shut down, and the earthquakes soon subsided.

It also prompted Davis and more than a dozen of his neighbours to file five lawsuits in federal court against Chesapeake Operating, as the owner in 2010 of two injection wells near Davis’s home, and BHP Billiton, which bought Chesapeake’s shale gas assets in 2011.

Clarita Operating LLC owned a third well that was shut down, but the company went bankrupt and was dropped from the litigation in 2011.

Chesapeake and BHP declined to comment. In court documents they denied they were responsible for the quakes.

The litigation marks the first legal effort to link earthquakes to wastewater injection wells, and the first attempt to win compensation from drilling companies for quake damage.

If any of the earthquake cases make it to a jury and the plaintiffs prevail, the outcome could spark additional litigation, since wastewater injection wells are used not only in fracking, but in other kinds of oil and gas drilling and geothermal energy production.

“The scientific community is really focusing on this issue, so I imagine we will see more cases because of that,” said Barclay Nicholson, a Houston lawyer who represents major oil and gas companies and is not involved in the Arkansas cases.

“That’s one of the new battlegrounds.”

The first of the suits, filed in the US District Court in Eastern Arkansas, is scheduled to go to trial before Judge J Leon Holmes in March, though the parties have been engaged in settlement talks.

The Arkansas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners, an oil and gas industry group, acknowledges that scientists found a possible connection between the disposal wells and the spate of minor earthquakes in and around Greenbrier.

But J Kelly Robbins, the group’s executive vice-president, said the companies had no way of knowing of any such link before wastewater injection began, and he said the operators shut the wells down when questions were raised.

The earthquake cases are part of a wave of litigation that has followed the rapid expansion in natural gas production across the US using fracking, a drilling process that deploys a highly pressurised mix of water and chemicals to break apart shale rock to release oil and gas.

Since 2009, about 40 civil suits related to fracking have been filed in eight states, claiming harm ranging from groundwater contamination, to air pollution, to excessive noise.

So far none of the lawsuits has made it to trial and about half have been dismissed or settled, with company lawyers mainly arguing that a link between fracking and contaminated groundwater or other environmental problems has not been proven.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue a major report on fracking and drinking water next year that could have an impact on these cases, lawyers following the litigation say.

The Arkansas litigation does not target fracking itself, but rather the disposal of the leftover toxic, briny water known as “flowback”. Millions of litres of wastewater are trucked from the fracking site to the well site, where they are injected thousands of metres underground into porous rock layers, often for weeks or months at a time.

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