Cabot case raises question: Is gas drilling “abnormally” dangerous?

Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas has been locked in battle with Pennsylvania officials and a group of homeowners over allegations its gas drilling activities have contaminated drinking water supplies.

In the civil suit filed by the homeowners, Cabot asked the judge to throw out the case — a pretty standard procedure in every lawsuit. No surprise, the judge refused and is letting the lawsuit proceed.

But of interest in the judge’s decision is that he let stand the homeowners’ claims that Cabot is legally responsible for the alleged problems based on the principle of strict liability. That’s the notion that an activity is so dangerous that those doing it are responsible for damages caused even if they took precautions to avoid it.

As the Scranton Times-Tribune notes:

Pennsylvania courts have not directly addressed whether gas drilling is an “abnormally dangerous” activity that fits the strict liability standard. In its motion to dismiss, Cabot argued that state courts have determined that similar activities, such as operating petroleum pipelines or underground storage tanks at gas stations, are not abnormally dangerous.

In his order, Judge Jones said it is too early in the case to extend the standard for pipelines and storage tanks to gas drilling.

“We believe it improvident to automatically extend this reasoning to drilling activities without more thorough consideration,” he wrote, adding that Cabot can raise the issue at a later point when more facts have been presented in the case.

It’s hardly an indicator of the outcome of the lawsuit. But it’s certainly not welcome by Cabot and other drillers trying to get to work in the Marcellus Shale.