For far too long the oil industry has wreaked havoc on the population and the environment with little, to no, pushback or regulation to protect Americans. In fact, it is a sad fact of American life that regardless the damage to the health and safety of Americans, Republicans in Congress and conservatives on the Supreme Court care more about the energy industry’s bottom line than they do Americans’ health, the environment, or the nation’s economic health. It was encouraging, then, that in a Republican-controlled state virtually owned by the oil industry, a High Court issued a procedural ruling that has the potential to hold the oil industry liable for injuring Oklahoma residents and damaging their property; but it was only a procedural ruling and no real threat to the Koch brothers’ industry.
In November of 2011, a woman watching television was injured during a (at one time rare) 5.0 magnitude earthquake as a result of the oil industry practice of pumping massive amounts of saltwater waste into the ground. The 5.0 earthquake, nearly unheard of in Oklahoma, was easily one of the largest on record and part of an alarming increase in earthquakes as a result of the industry’s oil extraction process known as fracking and wastewater injection. Sandra Ladra was injured when a two-story fireplace collapsed and crushed her legs.
In October a Lincoln County District judge, Cynthia Ferrell Ashwood, dismissed Ladra’s lawsuit against oil companies responsible for the earthquake, and came up with a bizarre notion that the court did not have jurisdiction over a wrongful injury lawsuit. Ashwood argued that the agency tasked with approving the earthquake-causing drilling (wastewater disposal) operation, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, was the proper agency to handle a lawsuit against the oil industry. The Oklahoma Supreme Court rightly disagreed and said the proper venue for a lawsuit, and determination of guilt, innocence, or damages, was in a court of law with a jury trial. It has been the case forever that lawsuits are the purview of the judicial system in America, but for some mysterious reason the Oklahoma lower court judge believed that a corporate commission issuing approval for oil corporations’ earthquake-causing operations was best equipped to decide that the oil corporations were not responsible for the woman’s earthquake-caused injury.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s “procedural” ruling will certainly expose the Oklahoma oil industry to many more lawsuits, and jury trials, over damages from the unheard of increase in earthquakes geological scientists say are the direct result of large-scale wastewater injection wells from oil drilling operations. In fact, one Oklahoma state agency said it is “very likely” that the frequent quakes of magnitude 3 or higher are triggered by such operations. It is also very likely that those agencies, like the federal U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), are not yet owned, or under the substantial influence, of the Koch Congress or the powerful oil industry.
Over the past five years, a normally seismic-quiet state like Oklahoma has suffered a dramatic increase in unheard of earthquakes that geologists and researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have blamed on the oil and gas industry practice of injecting massive volumes of saltwater left over from oil and gas drilling back deep into the Earth. Prior to 2009, Oklahoma experience just one or two 3.0 magnitude earthquakes each year. In 2014 alone, Oklahoma saw 600 magnitude 3.0 earthquakes that coincided with the doubling of Oklahoma oil production because the oil industry was given permission to “cheaply” inject vast amounts of saltwater found in oil and gas formations back underground and cause the state to experience unprecedented, and dangerous, earthquake activity. It was just one of those earthquakes that caused Sandra Ladra’s chimney to collapse and crush her legs which is why she is seeking medical damages in a long overdue lawsuit.
There are already other lawsuits pending against the energy industry in Oklahoma and hopefully they will face substantial public pressure, not just monetary damages, to stop the practice. The oil industry’s lawyers, and indeed the industry itself, are very angry that the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s move will bring additional lawsuits they claim will weaken the industry. What they really mean is that the industry’s profits will suffer from being held responsible for causing earthquakes that injure Oklahoma residents and destroy their property. Whereas the oil industry is worried about its profits from impending lawsuits, supporters of stiffer regulations protecting Oklahomans from a predatory energy industry are hopeful the “threat of energy companies being liable for earthquake damages may result in safer industry practices.”
The stark reality is that there is nothing, not even lawsuits and awards for damages, that will result in even one regulation of the oil industry to protect the people or the environment; even being hopeful that is the case is a fantasy that will never come to pass. America is, after all, a nation owned and operated by the energy industry and with the Koch brothers now firmly in control of both houses of Congress, and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, it is certain that any regulatory activity affecting the energy industry will be when Republicans abolish the EPA and USGS. In Oklahoma’s case, residents should expect an oil industry-written regulation calling for the impeachment of the state’s Supreme Court justices who dared to allow a lawsuit against oil corporations to go forward.
One would like to give props and kudos to the Oklahoma Supreme Court for “allowing” Ms. Ladra to seek damages from the oil industry responsible for the earthquakes in a court of law with a jury trial. However, the justices on the state’s High Court are not to be praised too quickly because their ruling was not against the oil industry per se, but a reversal of a lower court’s decision that the corporate agency (Oklahoma Corporate Commission) granting the industry permission to create earthquakes is not the proper venue to hear a lawsuit against the oil industry it supports.
Instead, the lawsuit will be heard where it belongs; in a court of law likely presided over by the judge who dismissed the injured Oklahoma woman’s lawsuit in the first place. In a red state governed by oil industry supporters, it is likely the jury will find the oil industry innocent and fine the injured woman for having the audacity to expect restitution for an unnecessary oil industry-caused injury. It is just the way America operates and it will only get worse now that the Kochs own Congress and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Audio engineer and instructor for SAE. Writes op/ed commentary supporting Secular Humanist causes, and exposing suppression of women, the poor, and minorities. An advocate for freedom of religion and particularly, freedom of NO religion.
Born in the South, raised in the Mid-West and California for a well-rounded view of America; it doesn’t look good.
Former minister, lifelong musician, Mahayana Zen-Buddhist.