Quakes rattle ExxonMobil “Death Star”: Is fracking to blame?


One thing has become increasingly clear over the last decade: Earthquakes in America aren’t just for California anymore. Regions that were long considered seismically stable — especially in the prairie regions of the American Southwest, but also far-flung areas such as Ohio — have been rocked by a series of tremors. These new waves of earthquakes can cause structural damage to homes and rattle the nerves of the people who live in them. And experts increasingly believe they are triggered by a human activity: Fracking.

The common bond between these new earthquake clusters is that each is in a region that has seen a boom in unconventional drilling methods for natural gas or for oil since the mid-2000s. The likely culprit, according to scientists, is not so much the drilling process but the disposal of billions of gallons of wastewater that is injected back into deep earth. It’s increasingly clear that this added water is exacerbating geologic fault lines that are far underground. The latest area to be rocked is the highly populated Dallas suburb of Irving, which for many years was the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Four earthquakes centered in Irving have shaken parts of North Texas since late Saturday.

Saturday night’s magnitude 3.3 quake happened at 9:15 p.m. just northeast of the old Texas Stadium site and was felt by hundreds of North Texans. The NBCDFW Facebook Fan page received more than 1,300 comments about it.

“The best way that I can describe it is when I was a kid and a plane would fly over and we would call it a sonic boom, you know the whole house would shake,” said Ann Lowie of Irving. “And I felt that and then it just kept going for a little bit and I was like ‘oh, I think we just had an earthquake.'”

The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed a magnitude 2.5 earthquake shook Irving at 3:40 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The epicenter was along Loop 12, just south of where it intersects with Texas 183.

This isn’t the first cluster of tremors to shake up Irving, a place where earthquakes were once unheard of. Local experts, while conceding a lack of proper measuring tools, strongly suspect the arrival of fracking in that area is behind the phenomenon:

The question for Stump and the rest of us is: Were these earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing while drilling for gas?

The answer is unknown. But his previous research has found a “plausible” connection to fracking and earthquakes in other North Texas locations, like DFW International Airport.

Some scientists compare what’s going on to an air hockey table. Between a giant rock formation, represented by a puck, and another formation, represented by the table, there is a tiny amount of space. But not enough to overcome the friction between the two rock formations.

Some believe when you inject fracking water into the earth, under pressure, it makes that space between just big enough that the two sides can move much more easily.

Not surprisingly, the Texas Railroad Commission, a supposed regulatory agency that is actually a tool of oil and gas interests, is eager to downplay the connection. But this is a problem that’s becoming increasingly harder for Big Oil to ignore — in this case, literally. That’s because Irving, Texas, is also the headquarters of the world’s largest and most powerful energy firm, ExxonMobil Corp.

I learned a thing or two about ExxonMobil when I was part of a legal team that did battle with the energy giant in a New Orleans courtroom a few years back. That time, the issue was the long-term dumping and mishandling of radioactive oil-field wastes at a site just across the Mississippi River; ExxonMobil’s cocky lawyers insisted on taking the matter to a jury, which awarded us a more-than $1 billion verdict (pared back on appeal) and allowed us to win justice for the property owners. I recap some of the drama of that case in my soon-to-be-published autobiography — Crude Justice:  How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America — and I also describe what’s known about ExxonMobil headquarters, nicknamed “The Death Star”:

It’s hard to find the right adjectives or turn of phrase to describe the sheer power of this global corporation, especially after it merged with one of its leading rivals to form the behemoth ExxonMobil in 1999. In 2012, with prices at the gas pump surging and American motorists addicted to their cars, ExxonMobil raked in nearly a billion dollars in pure profit a week, amounting to $41 billion for the entire year. In that same year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Steve Coll called ExxonMobil “a corporate state within the American state” and “one of the most powerful businesses ever produced by American capitalism.” It wasn’t just a matter of cash but also culture—intensively secretive, not afraid to butt into messy wars and conflicts overseas or to harass scientists who advance a theory of global warming that posed a threat to ExxonMobil’s long-time strategy of expanding the worldwide use of fossil fuel in perpetuity. Even some company insiders jokingly call the firm’s opulent, newish headquarters near Dallas “the Death Star.”

But as anyone who’s ever cracked open a Greek tragedy probably knows, the sin of hubris can be a lethal flaw, that tiny vent hole in the Death Star.

So here’s a new irony: The ill effects of fracking have now made it straight to front door of ExxonMobil’s secretive fortress, and to the neighborhoods where many of its top executives live. Big Oil has literally shaken up the world in its quest for dirty fossil fuels, and now the blowback from their reckless practices is coming right back in their face. Even that may not convince them to shift course, but I’ll bet the top honchos at ExxonMobil are getting an earful from some of their neighbors this Thanksgiving.

For more information and to pre-order “Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America“:  http://www.amazon.com/Crude-Justice-Fought-Environmental-America/dp/1939529239

Here’s NBCDWF’s report on the earthquake cluster in and around Irving, Tex.: http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Three-Earthquakes-in-Three-Days-for-Irving-283753151.html

Check out the report from WFAA on the possible connection to fracking: http://www.wfaa.com/story/news/local/2014/11/24/were-weekend-earthquakes-fracking-irving/70061888/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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