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Tilting the Scales Business Issues with a Legal Slant

Finding Fault with Fracing – Lawsuits and Earthquakes

Posted in *BTW - Noteworthy, Property Issues

Lisa Frick, our fictional Denton resident, who collected anti-fracing ordinance signatures to put on the Denton City Ballot now complains that fracing near old Texas Stadium caused earthquakes that harmed her twin sister Linda. Linda wants to sue our November fictional friend Frac Petroleum Company, contending that her Irving home was damaged by the January series of earthquakes caused by Frac’s hydraulic fracing that “felt like a semi hit the side of our house,” causing it to shake so badly it left structure cracks at least a half-inch wide. Can Lisa Frick’s sister Linda sue Frac Petroleum Company?

Answer

As the saying goes, anybody can file a lawsuit, but given the current status of Texas case law Linda probably won’t win. Scientific testimony relating earthquakes to hydraulic fracing is not widely accepted. Expert trial testimony requires reasoning or methodology that is scientifically valid and can properly be applied to the facts at issue – it must have attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community, the Daubert standard.

The Claim

It’s not the fracing, but rather the disposal of the leftover briny water known as “flowback” that is at the center of the hubbub. Typically, millions of gallons of wastewater are trucked from the fracing site to a second well site and injected thousands of feet underground into porous rock layers. Some seismologists say the flowback injection can cause tiny “micro earthquakes” rarely felt on the surface. While recognizing that the disposal process can trigger slightly larger quakes when water is pumped near an already stressed fault, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that only a handful of the 30,000 injection wells across the country have been suspected of causing earthquakes. While research doesn’t prove all fracing causes earthquakes, it does suggest that fracing occurring near fault lines has the potential to cause them.

Possible Lawsuit Claims

Even assuming unlikely supporting scientific Daubert evidence, a party claiming property damages in Texas could not prove that it was damaged under its most probable claim – trespass. The Texas Supreme Court held that damages for drainage by hydraulic fracturing are precluded by the rule of capture – a rule that gives a mineral rights owner title to the oil and gas produced from a lawful well bottomed on the property, even if the oil and gas flowed to the well from beneath another owner’s tract. No earthquake lawsuits have been successful in Texas, only lawsuits claiming damages from exposure to the compounds in the “flowback” – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and other compounds – that allegedly contaminated adjacent property.

My esteemed Gray Reed partner Charlie Sartain and expert Oil and Gas attorney regularly blogs at Energy and The Law and has several compelling and humorous entries worth your read:

What’s Going On in Denton, Texas?
Truth and Illusion in the Fracking Debate
Frac(k)ing, Parr v. Aruba, and Minority Oppression
In Wyoming, a Higher Burden for Chemical Disclosure Exemption?
Barnett Shale Drilling Increased North Texas Ozone – Fact or Fiction?
Hydrocarbon Exposure Reconsidered

Previous Tilting Articles: No Fracing Way!- Differences Between Surface & Mineral Estate Ownership and Come and Take It! – Denton Ordinance Prohibits Fracing

 

  • Marji Bishir Hill

    A clergy friend of mine who pastors a church in Irving was just talking about this so I’m going to forward it to him. Very timely, thanks.