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.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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27 Responses to “How to fight back on climate: $2.9 million fracking damage award in Texas”

  1. CorinaGingerovo says:

    upto I saw the draft of $7025 , I be certain
    …that…my mom in-law woz like they say truley making money part-time on
    their apple labtop. . there sisters roommate had bean doing this less than 8
    months and at present repayed the debts on their house and bought a brand new
    volvo . look at here now M­o­n­e­y­d­u­t­i­e­s­.­C­O­M­

  2. 4th Turning says:

    Don’t you think the mantra ought to go-conservation/wind/solar? The “c” word never
    seems to bubble to the surface. No serious mention of personal/community sacrifice ever gets alluded to?

  3. 4th Turning says:

    While still wondering about rising water levels, etc., ran across this stat: State coastal officials explained how Louisiana lost 2,300 square miles of coastal wetlands and shoreline property over the past 70 years, much of that loss tied to federal decisions — including construction of navigation channels and flood control levees — that benefited the national economy at the state’s expense.
    This, entertaining as it is, seems prescient?…

  4. 4th Turning says:

    Not above a little idealism in this 11th hour.

  5. Brian C. Bock says:

    People just need to look at how the petroleum industry has carved up the green buffer around New Orleans and allowed salt water to migrate into previously fresh water areas to see how little concern the energy industry and the GOP care about long-term damages. New Orleans is doomed and yet their GOP governor and legislature seek only to protect the oil companies who threaten to leave if they are forced to be accountable in court or required to mitigate the damage they caused. Yeah, they’re going to leave. And take their oil with them?

  6. ne2indy says:

    That’s exactly what I believe will happen. Sadly, they will get by with it. Whoops. From the post below I see they’ve already passed retroactive legislation to stop people from suing.

  7. Moderator4 says:

    Thank you.

  8. GeneGrossman says:

    OK. Sorry about that.

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy S®III

    ——– Original message ——–

  9. Moderator4 says:

    Stop adding your own website to your comments, or you will be banned.

  10. emjayay says:

    Well, if you are OK with fracking, and I think there is a case in that natural gas is an easy, cleaner and lower carbon and now cheaper replacement for burning fuel oil and coal, then really tough regulations and enforcement about all the methane releases and problems in the process are an obvious solution. Not gonna happen in Texas though .

  11. GeneGrossman says:

    The judge and jury of a fracking case should be brought to the residence of a plaintiff whose kitchen tap water is demonstrably flammable, and the defendant’s legal team should then be informed that the pitcher of ice water they were provided with at that morning’s pre-trial conference was filled with the allegedly ‘safe’ water that came from the plaintiff’s faucet… and then let’s see how the trial goes.
    G.G. –

  12. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Are those our only choices? What has happened to wind and solar energy?

  13. Sam Jay says:

    umm.. Fracking release natural gas, with has a much lower carbon footprint then coal or oil. How is this fighting back for climate?

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  15. BeccaM says:

    Which is to say the only purpose of such ‘agencies’ is to look the other way and ignore the citizens being poisoned.

    What struck me most in the Parr case was how the exceedingly lax few regulations that existed were routinely violated with impunity by Aruba. Valves and hatches left open, so that toxic gas could be vented into the air. Toxic water just dumped onto the ground. “Oh gee, inspectors are coming, quick wash everything down.” Methane bubbling out of holes in the ground.

    And just the sheer amount of pollutants being dumped into the air — unfiltered diesel exhaust, raw methane/NG being burned in stacks right next to people’s homes, the frequent stink of released propane — it’s staggering how in 2014 we actually let this happen, even though we know these chemicals make people sick and can kill.

    I guess it should come as no surprise during this ‘fracking boom’ that the fossil fuel companies are fighting like crazy for the right to frack anywhere they like, be free from just about any meaningful pollution regulations, and to keep secret exactly what they’re using to poison the air and groundwater.

    I’ve a feeling in about 20-30 years, we’re going to discover that what they’ve been using is as toxic as dioxin, and hundreds of towns and neighborhoods around America — if not thousands — are going to end up like Love Canal, NY. Deserted, poisoned, and unfit for human habitation.

  16. Naja pallida says:

    The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is a sad joke. It is a group appointed by the governor, and you don’t seriously think that Rick Perry is going to appoint anyone who isn’t going to shine the oil industry’s knob on command, do you? They, and the Rail Road Commission, which actually “regulates” the oil industry in Texas, have both sent inspectors out to all these fracking locations, literally had their meters spike so high they couldn’t take accurate readings because of how dangerous the situation is. Then proceeded to release reports, in every case, that says “Nothing to see here, move along.” The amount of methane seeping from these sites is not only hazardous to the health of the people living there, but an explosion or giant fire just waiting to happen… but Texas doesn’t care. The oil industry certainly doesn’t care. Profits over people, every damn time. Plus, the Texas electoral situation is so heavily skewed, there likely isn’t anything that can be done to fix it anyway. Remember, Texas is the state that just let a town explode last year, and still hasn’t done anything about it. Because exploding towns, and the death of its people are just the cost of doing business in Texas.

  17. emjayay says:

    Yes, I saw that on Maddow (I think). Unbelievable. Except, Texas.

  18. emjayay says:

    What exists of any regulatory agency in Texas is owned by the oil industry, like any coal regulatory agency in West Virginia is owned by the coal industry.

  19. Naja pallida says:

    Already done… and the legislation is retroactive, so technically it should kill any ongoing litigation.

  20. Indigo says:

    There is that. There’s scarcely enough rain to wash away the oily sludge now seeping to the surface in the fields of western North Dakota.

  21. cole3244 says:

    the problem is unless the fracking or other harmful methods are in most peoples back yard they could care less about the long term consequences, but that’s why they are called conservatives and not liberals.

  22. BeccaM says:

    I looked into the Parr case some weeks back, having stumbled onto the story via links I saw somewhere… might’ve been dKos. The Parrs documented their case with meticulous detail, including photos, copies of reports (including water and soil sample lab results), and even some videos.

    Quite frankly I was stunned by what Aruba Petroleum was able to get away with. Stunned by how much of what Aruba Petroleum did that was 100% legal, as well as how much additional damage they were able to do — illegally, with months going by without being stopped — because they clearly did not give a flying rat’s ass about anything but making a few dollars more in profit.

    They didn’t care about the noise and air pollution. Or the noxious gases from their illegal venting. Or about the groundwater pollution.

    But what’s shocked me more than anything else is how an industry that deals exclusively with uncontained highly toxic pollutants is allowed to set up right next to people’s homes.

  23. pappyvet says:

    I am very glad that they won but the case is not over yet. Corporations have been drenching state supreme courts with money. An excellent report by Billy Corriher from the Center for American Progress website gives some frightening details.

  24. caphillprof says:

    The drought may make the damages too low to merit a lawsuit.

  25. disqus_tu7SEHpgGp says:

    IANAL, but, I wonder if the natives of the oil sands in Canada can sue companies in the US for polluting their grounds?

  26. oikos says:

    Watch how fast regressive Texas will pass legislation to prohibit property owners from suing in the future in light of this decision.

  27. Indigo says:

    That’s a good start although collecting the 2.9 million could prove to be a 30 year run-around. Interestingly, the lawsuits are starting up in Texas but I have yet to hear of any lawsuits coming out of the ruined wheat fields of western North Dakota.

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