Native Americans have been in court with fossil fuel companies quite a bit lately. For the past few years, Sioux in the Dakotas have been fighting against pipeline projects they say endanger their water supply. Now, an Oklahoma-based Pawnee tribe is suing a number of oil companies, alleging that the severe increase in earthquakes is causing “extensive damage” to their tribal buildings and lands.
The suit brings the hot topic of hydraulic fracking back into the headlines. Fracking has been a contentious topic for some years now, as environmental groups and research scientists assert that the practice of injecting wastewater into wells is creating huge numbers of earthquakes. Oklahoma used to get a handful of earthquakes each year. Now, reportedly, they are getting one every day.
The lawsuit stems from a quake last September that measured nearly six on the magnitude scale. This quake, according to the Pawnee plaintiffs, caused damaged to real and personal property, as well as significant market value loss. They are also seeking punitive damages as a way, they say, of teaching the oil companies more responsible behavior.
In a statement published by the Associated Press, Pawnee Nation executive director Andrew Knife Chief said, “We’re using our tribal laws, our tribal processes to hold these guys accountable. The damage was done to the Pawnee Nation and the folks that live on trust land.”
According to the litigants, this is the first earthquake-related litigation filed in tribal court. There will be a jury decision and, if appealed, the case will be passed along to a tribal Supreme Court. Enforcement, though, would involve a state district court…but that enforcement would not be subject to an appeal.
If the Pawnee are successful, this could trigger a series of similar suits in both Oklahoma and in other states beset by earthquakes that, scientists say are caused by fracking practices. Regulators are already on the case, ordering oil and gas producers to close injection wells or reduce the volume of fluids they inject.
When the quake in question destroyed some property and injured some residents, Oklahoma’s governor declared a state of emergency for the entire county. That led residents both in the state and outside of it to become more conscious of fracking in their regions.
Fracking, from a PR perspective, has become one of the most intense Not In My Back Yard issues of the 21stcentury. Proponents tout the results: energy independence, cheaper fuel and fewer entanglements in OPEC. That said, nobody really wants to have fracking wells in their general vicinity. If you want to know why just ask the Pawnee.
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