In another surprise ruling, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court has decided that homeowners whose dwellings suffer damage due to fracking-related earthquakes can sue the companies responsible.  It’s bad news for oil companies in the Sooner State, who would prefer that the lawsuits go through their friends at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

That is the big reason for the court’s ruling:

Allowing district courts to have jurisdiction in these types of private matters does not exercise inappropriate ‘oversight and control’ over the [Corporation Commission]…rather, it conforms to the long-held rule that district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over private tort actions when regulated oil and gas operations are at issue.”

In other words, we can’t have the foxes guarding the henhouse.

Unlike geologically active regions of the country such as California and the Pacific Northwest, earthquakes in Oklahoma are rare events. The U.S. Geological Survey reports less than a dozen earthquakes over the course of the 20th Century, none of which caused more than minor damage. Then suddenly, starting about four years ago, the state started setting records for the number of seismic events. The most serious of these occurred in early November 2011. A series of moderate to serious quakes (5.0 or greater on the Richter Scale) destroyed six homes and damaged over 170 others in and around the community of Prague, about 40 miles east of Oklahoma City.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process opening up “fractures” in oil and gas wells. It involves pumping water and chemicals, along with a “proppant” (a material such as sand, meant to “prop” the fracture open). This technique is not new. Oil and gas companies in Texas and Oklahoma started using the process in the late 1940s. For more than six decades, there were few outward effects. However, over the past few years, fracking has been responsible for the poisoning of water supplies as well as property damage due to seismic events.

What changed?

Prior to the 21st Century, fracking was employed in vertical wells – the usual kind that run straight down into the earth. In recent years, however, it has been used in horizontal wells. This allows drilling companies to cover more area – and unfortunately these areas often run underneath residential areas. The combination of horizontal drilling and fracking has allowed these companies to access shale formations. Again, many of these lie under densely-populated regions.

Contrary to what these companies claim, fracking chemicals have been contaminating aquifers. Additionally, information came out back in March 2015 that geologists working for the State of Oklahoma had concerns about fracking and earthquakes over a year before they started happening. However, due to pressure from oil companies, these scientists said nothing.

Here in the USA, we have a tendency to emphasize treatments over prevention. Local municipalities in Texas and Oklahoma have attempted to pass regulations preventing oil companies from fracking within their boundaries. One would think that in states dominated by Republicans who are always yelling about the “evils of Big Government” and giving lip service to the rights of the people, this wouldn’t be a problem.

You’d be wrong. In acts of rank hypocrisy, the oil companies in Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws overruling local authority.

Now that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has opened the door for victims of fracking to bring legal action against those responsible, the oil and gas companies who bought off state lawmakers may be held accountable.

But wouldn’t it have been better just to stop them in the first place? Talk about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Watch our commentary on fracking:

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.