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Coal Charles R Knight public domain image

Published on April 24th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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Fracking Loses Huge Fight, In Texas No Less

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April 24th, 2014 by
 
In yet another signal that era of fossil fuels is drawing to a close, a jury has just awarded a whopping $3 million to a Texas family for health and property impacts linked to a nearby Aruba Petroleum fracking operation. The Texas fracking verdict is being billed as the first case in which fracking has been put on public trial in the US, and it is all the more significant because of the large size of the award and the location of the trial in the nation’s historical epicenter of oil and gas development.

An even more significant aspect of the case is the fact that the family, Bob and Lisa Parr, brought their case to public trial rather than going the conventional route of settling privately under a gag order. The Texas fracking verdict could open the floodgates to many more expensive lawsuits, finally revealing the true cost of “cheap” fossil fuel.

Texas fracking verdict against Aruba Petroelum

Charles R. Knight public domain image.

A $3 Million Verdict Against Fracking

Matthews & Associates is the law firm behind the case. The firm is getting a ton of great publicity off the verdict, which will most certainly grow their existing fracking case file (apparently they already have several other claims under investigation), while inspiring others to pursue the public justice route rather than settle behind closed doors.

In a blog post on the firm’s website, Mr. Capshaw of Matthews & Associates had this juicy tidbit to say:

The jury has shown again that, more often than not, juries get it right.

Also advocating for the public route is his associate, Mr. Matthews:

I’m really proud of the family that went through what they went through …It’s not easy to go through a lawsuit and have your personal life uncovered and exposed to the extent this family went through.

So, Why Is This The First Juried Fracking Case?

If you want details about the health and property impacts, you can check out boots-on-the-ground Texas blogger TXsharon, who has covered the case in depth from the beginning, including site visits, family interviews, and advocacy work with other journalists, government agencies, and other stakeholders.

For those of you whose stomachs unsettle easily, let’s just say that the health impacts were severe, which leads to the following question: if the health impacts of fracking are that obvious and extreme, given the thousands of fracking wells that have been drilled in recent years close by populated areas why is this the first case to go to trial?

There could be any number of reasons for that, including — as Aruba Petroleum argues — the verdict was wrong, or that Aruba was operating far outside the bounds of standard safety practices.

However, one factor at work is the common practice of settling personal injury claims in private, with the plaintiffs forbidden forever from discussing the case.

That’s not unusual as far as personal injury settlements go, but in the case of fracking it leads to a situation in which a public health threat is enabled to continue in multiple states across the country, clearly indicating the need for federal regulation, simply because there is not enough information sharing to establish it as a broad problem.

For more on that angle check out Bloomberg.com, which had a good article on fracking gag orders last year under the header “Drillers Silence Fracking Claims With Sealed Settlements.”

Here’s the teaser:

The energy industry claims there’s no proof fracking hurts the environment, but it turns out they’ve made sure there’s no proof, by paying complainers in exchange for their silence.

The report highlights a Pennsylvania case but it’s based on a review of hundreds of filings in multiple states, reaching this conclusion:

The strategy keeps data from regulators, policymakers, the news media and health researchers, and makes it difficult to challenge the industry’s claim that fracking has never tainted anyone’s water.

The True Cost Of Fossil Fuels

Compared to a jury verdict of $3 million, these private settlements are chump change, so if the litigation picture turns in favor of going to jury, that is bound to have an effect on the overall cost of fracking, which could affect the cost of oil as well as natural gas.

Now let’s broaden that out to take a look at that other “cheap” fuel, coal.

The Obama Administration has been taking a lot of abuse from certain quarters for its aggressive pursuit of tighter emissions controls on power plants. The problem for the coal industry is that the new restrictions expose the fact that other fuels can meet those same goals more economically, so the real world effect is to stop energy companies from using coal to generate electricity.

However, even if the coal industry comes up with a new low-cost technology that makes it competitive with renewable fuels on emissions, there are other unaddressed lifecycle impacts related to coal that will cost money to mitigate, prevent, and remediate. That includes regional economic malaise and environmental issues related to coal mining, as well as coal transportation impacts.

Then there’s coal ash disposal, which has been done on the cheap for generations. Now the chickens are coming home to roost as cracks develop in the nation’s patchwork of of aging, open-lagoon coal ash dumps. The massive Tennessee coal ash spill of 2008 resulted in hundreds of millions in cleanup costs, and costs for this year’s North Carolina coal ash spill have already reached the $15 million mark.

That’s nothing — just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Duke Energy’s estimate for the cost of removing all of its coal ash dumps from North Carolina ranges from $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

As they say, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • TinaCasey

    Come to think of it (see my previous comment), here’s a link to get you started: http://cleantechnica.com/2013/12/27/epa-hits-chesapeake-energy-with-record-fracking-fine/

  • TinaCasey

    Thank you guys for yet another interesting comment thread. Somewhere in the middle we got sidetracked into a discussion of President Obama’s position on fracking, namely, whether or not he is a “fan” of the practice. I think the general problem is that the concept of fandom is unhelpful as applied to energy policy.

    Personally I’m not a big fan of the Obama “all of the above” strategy, but that policy does recognize the realities of current energy demands, the state of renewable technology, regulatory frameworks, and political obstacles.

    One key factor to keep in mind is the “Cheney” Clean Water Act exemption, which virtually eliminated any federal authority to regulate fracking. Since the 2010 election cycle dealt the Administration a Republican majority in the House and filibuster strength in the Senate, there has been no opportunity for federal legislative corrections to that loophole, and state legislators haven’t exactly picked up the slack (to say the least).

    That leave executive action, which is highly problematic in today’s political climate (again, to say the least). However, under this avenue EPA has been pursuing several strategies to tighten fracking regulations, including a proposal regarding fugitive methane emissions.

    It’s also worth noting that by pumping up programs like SunShot (low cost solar), AgStar (agricultural biogas), Re-Powering America’s Lands (renewable energy development on brownfields), and many others along with innumerable Defense Department renewable energy initiatives, the Administration has positioned renewable technology to take the reins from natural gas and other fossil fuels.

    CleanTechnica has covered everything I’ve mentioned here so you can search the site for links.

  • Matt

    Duke is the largest electric producer in the US. Almost all in coal and nuke. So if the coal ash clean up cost in 1 state is $2-$2.5 billion, multiple that by 10-20 to get there total cost and that is just Duke. Wondering if tax payers will be bailing them out soon.

  • Michael Berndtson

    That scuttling sound you may hear is oil and gas lobbyists running down K Street to help Obama write federal environmental, health and safety (EHS) regulations for fracking. The old saw, “all’s fun and games until someone loses eye” kind of applies here. Regulation presumes State (governmental agency) buyin. The feds are outside the loop to some extent. Texas may have an ever growing problem. Many of the actual fracking companies are limited liability and dissolve when things don’t go swimmingly. That other scuttling sound you may hear are environmental groups returning checks to Aubrey McClendon. Funny how the EDF/UT Austin fugitive/deliberate emissions study just looked at methane.

  • Pfc Lavering

    Yes, if you spill coffee and you lose the top layer of skin this happens (sometimes). That poor women , the liquid went down deeper.

    back to the article….

    Its nice to finally have a legal precedent. Its so hard to explain to people who look at the court system from the outside, looking in, the amazing power of a precedent.

    A judge can make the wrong ruling, and sometimes, do so on purpose. If there is no precedent, you have a long , hard struggle on appeal, that boils down to people throwing their opinions around in briefs about the topic.

    If nobody agrees, it can get kicked higher, and the supreme court(s) can just flat out refuse to give an opinion.

    This is the process we are all used to.

    A jury verdict being in place, suing is a different process. Now that a precedent is set, the basic legal steps to win are laid out – all you must do is show that your case is the same as this case, a vastly easier hurdle to overcome , then being the *first* case.

    This is a big day for poor people. In our country (and most of the world) poor people live in chemical squalor even if their homes are classy and nice on the outside. There is crap in their water and radon in the basement.

    Poor people don’t usually have the money to fight, and are so desperate for money, they will sign gag orders to get it.

    The cat is now out of the bag. The cost to fight this in court has been lowered dramatically now that precedent is set. With public record and a reduced cost to sue, the floodgates, may actually, finally, open.

  • No way

    This might be the first time ever I’m glad that the US has its ridiculous lawsuits for anything and everything with money piles up to the roof if you ever got a blister, paper cut or burn yourself on coffee (what? is coffee hot?)

    I hope this is the first of many lawsuits and that it will totally stop the fracking industry.

    • S.Nkm

      That coffee lawsuit your are referring to was warranted. The plaintiff suffered 3rd degree burns. She needed hospitalization, skin grafting, and two years of medical treatment. The defendant offered $800 to cover for the medical expenses. Hundreds, if not thousands of people got burnt before someone finally did something to stop it.

      • No way

        Sure… If she would have gotten the hospital bills payed + expenses and lost income + maybe $10k-$200k depending on the damages left when treated.

        The point was those ridiculous sums and often for just being stupid. And also being able to sue people for almost anything.

        • Dgaetano

          You really should read the details of that coffee case before using it as an example of ridiculous lawsuits.

          • No way

            I probably should. I take that one back. Replace it with any other example of lawsuits where people got big money for small things.

          • dgaetano

            Sorry, I didn’t mean to pile on. My attitude towards that case was the same as yours for years until for some random reason one day I read the details.

            When I did I was horrified to find out that if anything they took it too easy on McDonald’s, and somehow the media had managed to spin it into a frivolous lawsuit story, and I had bought the narrative completely.

            It forever changed the way I look at the news media.

          • A Real Libertarian

            Punitive damages are intended to punish.

            The theory is to make the costs so huge that businesses are afraid to be negligent.

            Of course this is spun as “Frivolous Lawsuits!!!” by the media, they know who’s paying them.

            Those “examples of lawsuits where people got big money for small things” inevitably turn to be evil corporations playing the victim with the help of their PR departments or hoaxes.

            See here:
            http://www.cracked.com/article_19150_6-famous-frivolous-lawsuit-stories-that-are-total-b.s..html

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