An earthquake occurred in the early hours of Dec. 9 in Mineral Wells, the same general North Texas area where news reports say more than a dozen other minor earthquakes have been recorded in the past six weeks. As a result, C. Christopher Cowan’s phone started ringing more persistently.
Who was calling the partner in The Cowan Law Firm in Dallas? Area property owners, asking about the progress of a pending lawsuit filed in Johnson County, about an hour away from Mineral Wells. The lawsuit alleges that oil and gas companies that engaged in hydraulic fracturing in that region are responsible for the increased risk of quakes.
Cowan represents four named plaintiffs in Finn v. EOG Resources in the 18th District Court in Johnson County. They seek to certify a class of Johnson County property owners and recoup alleged damages arising from claims of negligence, nuisance, strict liability and gross negligence against four oil and gas businesses.
All four defendants have denied the allegations.
If you walk into his clients’ homes, Cowan said, you will see “gaps between the walls and the foundations, sloped floors, windows that don’t open, windows and doors frames that are out of square,” and “in the yards, bricks that are cracked and great big depressions in the ground bigger than kiddie-sized swimming pools.”
In their July 30 complaint, the plaintiffs allege the defendants engaged in hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), which created greater risks for quakes and tremors, which in turn have triggered foundational damage to their homes.
Sunoco Partners Marketing & Terminals and EOG Resources Inc. both deny the allegations in separate answers filed on Sept. 3. In its answer, Sunoco states as an affirmative defense that the plaintiffs have failed to state a sufficient factual basis on which to make a claim. In its answer, EOG Resources states that plaintiffs have failed to identify specific activity of the company that caused the damage to the purported class.
Michael Lynn, a partner in Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox in Dallas who represents Sunoco, and William “Willie” Wood, a partner in Norton Rose Fulbright in Houston who represents EOG, both declined comment.
The two other corporate defendants, Shell Trading (US) Co. and Enterprise Crude Oil LLC, filed answers on Sept. 12 and Aug. 23, respectively. Both generally denied the allegations.
Neither Randall Betty, a partner in Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller in Fort Worth who represents Enterprise, nor Timothy Gehl, senior counsel for Shell, returned a call for comment.
Rick Rainey, a spokesman for Enterprise Products, a parent company of Enterprise, said the company doesn’t know why it was named.
“We’re scratching our heads about this one. We are not a producer. We are not involved in hydraulic fracturing,” he said.
Shell’s media office did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Cowan, who represents the plaintiffs on a contingency basis, said the recent quakes have alerted many about the risks. The Dec. 9 quake ranked as the largest, registering 3.7 magnitude, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“I think we really have to question what’s leading to that activity, particularly given the 100-year history of the area before the fracking, when there were no quakes,” he said.
He predicts much more work will be needed before any denouement in Finn. Discovery has just begun, the court has issued no scheduling order, and neither side has identified its experts in documents, he said.
Cowan said he has not completed his research on how many Johnson County property owners could be in the proposed class. But he seems prepared to go forth even if not all those recent callers become clients immediately.
“This litigation is certainly something that the industry needs to take seriously, and it needs to take seriously not just the threat of litigation but the damage that is occurring in the urban and suburban environment near what they are doing. What responsibilities do they have to the landowners of the ground above where they are drilling? Are we going to allow one industry to come in and ruin people’s dreams so a small group of oil company investors can profit?” he said.