How to fight back on climate: $2.9 million fracking damage award in Texas

Most of us are informed about environmental and climate concerns — such as the multiple damages done by CO2, fracking and methane. These concerns overlap quite lot since carbon is involved in all of them. But quite often we don’t see a path to winning.

One way to win is with divestment programs. I’ve started writing about them (see here), but there’s much more I haven’t covered., for example, has a major divestment program going, modeled on the successful anti-apartheid divestment program.

Investing in carbon really is a moral decision, perhaps the defining moral issue of our times. That’s an easy story to tell — let’s not cook your children’s planet. You could even tell it to your own broker, if you have one. Then you can divest.

Another way to win is through people’s natural disinclination to see their own farms and communities by destroyed by carbon-hungry frackers and drillers — independent of their simultaneous willingness to have the property of others destroyed in pursuit of identical goals.

Bottom line, no one, even Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, wants their own property messed with. And that’s why god made the courts. Just ask Mr. Tillerson, who’s using the court himself to hold back the fracking trucks.

$2.9 million awarded to Texas family in fracking damage case

Which brings us to Texas, home of both the frackers and those destroyed by the fracked oil they love to drill and sell. Here’s the story of one family’s court victory (my emphasis everywhere):

Damage Award in Texas Fracking Case Raises Stakes in Air Quality Debate

Family’s $2.9 million legal victory to be challenged. Aruba Petroleum says its emissions didn’t harm family

Between February 2010 and July 2011, Lisa and Bob Parr filed 13 complaints about air pollution from gas and oil operations near their ranch in Wise County, Texas. Sometimes they had trouble breathing, they told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They also experienced nausea, nosebleeds, ringing ears and rashes.

Other families were also alarmed. Between 2008 and 2011, the TCEQ received 77 complaints from Wise County, in the Barnett Shale drilling area in North Texas. One said the odor was so powerful that the complainant “couldn’t go outside,” according to the TCEQ report.

Problems like those above are not uncommon. So those oil-loving Texans decided to sue:

TexasOilFields400pxFINALFINAL_0_8bit_TRIMMEDTheir attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the Parrs persisted and last month won what appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby. A Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a privately owned company based in Plano, Texas, “intentionally created a private nuisance” that affected the family’s health and awarded the Parrs almost $3 million in damages.

Of course, this is just the first round:

Aruba has asked Judge Mark Greenberg, who presided over the Parrs’ case, to reverse the jury’s verdict. Greenberg is expected to hear arguments over the verdict in June [2014].

Still, this judgement sets the table for more:

“This case will be looked at very, very closely because it has set the stage in a way that has never been set before,” said attorney Tomas Ramirez. He represents two families in similar lawsuits in the booming Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas, where emissions are raising the same alarms that have been sounding in the heavily developed Barnett Shale region the Parrs call home.

All good news, and all a followable path. As fracking spreads like fire (or like the plague), the opportunities to use the courts — as the Parrs have done, as Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is doing — spread as well.

This isn’t about “Texas irony,” it’s about incentives

Did I sound snarky above, when I wrote about “Texas, home of both the frackers and those destroyed by the fracked oil they love to drill”?

That’s not snark, or even irony, though it is ironic, isn’t it? In fact, it’s really a note to you, friends, a little reminder, about the power of well-chosen incentives. There are two ways to get a person — who insists on doing the wrong thing — to do the right thing:

1. Change them into someone who wants to do the right thing.

2. Design incentives that make doing the right thing the easiest, most selfish, most pain-avoiding, greediest option available.

Option one is never a good choice. And option two always works. Your child doesn’t have to be someone who wants to make his bed in the morning. All he has to be is someone who wants something else, like TV at night. Just make him a trade — yes bed, yes TV; no bed, no TV. This way it doesn’t matter what he wants. All you care about is what he does.

And the beauty is, he’s in control.

Screwed-up incentives are why CEOs are looting companies (click to see why). Put a pile of money on a bomb and I guarantee that someone will set it off. Put a fracking well next to every house in the country, and a coal plant next to that, and we’ll be carbon-free in five years. Guaranteed.

Incentives; it’s one way to win this thing. Fracking is methane, and methane is poison, even in Texas.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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