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Oklahoma District Court Dismisses Induced Seismicity Suit

On April 4, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma dismissed a lawsuit brought by Sierra Club against four oil and natural gas companies. Sierra Club sought injunctions from the District Court requiring: (1) defendants to reduce the amount of wastewater injected into the ground “to levels that seismologists believe will not cause or contribute to increased earthquake frequency and severity;” (2) defendants to reinforce vulnerable structures that “current forecasts indicate could be impacted by large magnitude earthquakes;” and (3) “the establishment of an independent earthquake monitoring and prediction center to determine the amount of [wastewater] which may be injected into a specific well or formation before induced seismicity occurs.”

The District Court dismissed the lawsuit under the Burford abstention and primary jurisdiction doctrines. The District Court defined the Burford doctrine as requiring the dismissal of a lawsuit brought in equity where state court review is available and where “the exercise of federal review of the question in a case and in similar cases would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.” The Court found that the exercise of federal judicial jurisdiction would inhibit the efforts of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The Court also considered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s five-factor test used to determine whether the primary jurisdiction doctrine applies. After consideration of the factors, the District Court determined that referral of the issues raised in the lawsuit to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was proper, in part, because the Commission has “more specialized experience, expertise, and insight” on the matter.