A pillar of the anti-fracking movement has fallen now that a federal judge has set aside a lucrative jury award and has ordered a new trial. It involves the Dimock case that was spotlighted by the 2010 documentary “Gasland,” which sought to portray drilling as harmful to drinking water supplies.
Hydraulic fracturing, of course, is the technique used to break the shale oil and natural gas from rocks deep below the earth’s surface — a process that uses chemicals, sand and water. Critics complain of not just the potential for fouled drinking water but also of increased carbon emissions.
However, the drilling tack is the reason that the United States has become a global leader in oil and gas production and why natural gas is supplanting coal as the leading fuel used to generate electricity. And safe exploration has bipartisan support as a result, albeit the Democrats favor tighter restrictions and greater transparency in terms of the chemicals used to flesh out the fuels.
To that end, the differences became increasingly apparent when President Trump signed an executive order last week that reverses a rule put in place by President Obama to curb methane releases from oil and gas drilling. Methane, which is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat, had been the alleged culprit in the Dimock case.
With that, Judge Martin Carlson took the rare step last week of setting aside the $4.24 million jury award in that trial for two families who had alleged that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. despoiled the ground water in their township of Dimock, Pa. The jury, he said, disregarded flawed testimony, although the judge nonetheless ruled that the case could be retried.
“(T)he weaknesses in the plaintiffs’ case and proof, coupled with serious and troubling irregularities in the testimony and presentation of the plaintiffs’ case – including repeated and regrettable missteps by counsel in the jury’s presence – combined so thoroughly to undermine faith in the jury’s verdict that it must be vacated and a new trial ordered,” Judge Carlson wrote.
“Moreover, the jury’s award of more than $4 million in damages for private nuisance bore no discernible relationship to the evidence, which was at best limited …,” he added, in his ruling. […]
The ramifications of this judge’s decision to set aside the award in the Dimock case are thus huge, impacting both corporations and communities. Freeport, Texas, for example, is now home to new ethylene and ammonia plants, which rely on a steady flow of natural gas, launched by two of the largest global chemical producers: America’s Dow Chemical Co. and Germany’s BASF.
“Cabot presented uncontradicted evidence that undermined the plaintiffs’ very theory of liability in this case …,” the judge wrote. “The plaintiffs had no explanation for this scientific evidence.”
While natural gas producers won this round, they should now take the opportunity to inform the communities where they operate of their best-practices while also going as far to reveal the chemicals they use to drill. That would create goodwill among all stakeholders and perhaps lessen the opposition’s intensity.