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.
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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