The Oklahoma State Supreme Court delivered a devastating blow to the fossil fuel industry last week when it unanimously decided that homeowners in Oklahoma could sue the industry for earthquake damage linked to hydraulic fracturing.
While the justices on the Court did not necessarily endorse the link between fracking and earthquakes — or frackquakes — they did acknowledge the fact that increased fracking activities have correlated with an increase in earthquakes, and that existing tort laws would allow plaintiffs to sue the industry if damage can be proven.
In liability terms, plaintiffs in Oklahoma would have to be able to prove that the earthquake that caused the damage — either to the individual or to their property — while the industry would have to prove the quake was not the result of their activities.
Correlation does not equal causality, but a plethora of studies have confirmed that hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection does, in fact, trigger earthquakes. The bulk of these quakes are occurring in fracking-heavy states like Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
For Oklahoma residents, causality is fairly easy to prove, given that officials in the state recently admitted that there is a direct link between fracking activities and the increased frequency of earthquakes occurring in the state.
In April of this year, the Oklahoma Geological Survey released a report that also concluded that the increased frequency and intensity of earthquakes in the state of Oklahoma was “very likely” tied to the increase of fracking within the state. In that report, seismologists stated that the rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma had risen by 70 times in the years between 2008 and 2013, with quakes of a magnitude of 3.0 or greater occurring two to three times per day, as opposed to twice a year before the expansion of fracking.
We have reported in the past that the increased likelihood of earthquakes around fracking sites was becoming a cause for concern for both the industry and governments (in the U.S. and abroad). This Court ruling should be an even larger concern for the industry.
The next step will be for the victims of these earthquakes to file individual lawsuits and hope that their attorneys are successful in getting these classified as a class action to be filed together. Once the class has been established and the lawsuit gets underway, lawyers will have access to records from the industry itself that have previously been off-limits to the public.
This discovery process is probably the most substantial in this case (as it is with any lawsuit), because this is where the real damning information is often found. If the industry knew that there was a link between fracking and earthquakes, it will be uncovered in their internal memos and emails, which has the potential to sink the entire industry.
In addition to individual citizens joining class action suits, governing bodies will also be given the opportunity to sue the industry for damage caused by earthquakes to infrastructure that the government is on the hook for repairing.
Successful lawsuits in Oklahoma will result in lawsuits against the industry in any locale where fracking and earthquakes are tied together, creating a judicial nightmare for the fossil fuel industry. A nightmare that has the potential to bankrupt fracking operations and put a stop to this dangerous practice once and for all.