At least some national politicians seem worried about the link between earthquakes and oil and gas drilling activities here in Oklahoma. Too bad it’s no one actually from our state itself.
U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Henry Waxman of California this week called for a federal hearing on “the issue of induced seismicity from wastewater injection wells.” Those wells, which are used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking and in traditional drilling, have been linked to earthquakes by scientists here and elsewhere.
Oklahoma has experienced a recent swarm of earthquakes. A 4.5 magnitude earthquake hit just north of Edmond recently, and a 5.7 magnitude earthquake near Prague in 2011 caused extensive damage. Many Oklahomans, according to various news reports in recent months, remain anxious that a major earthquake could soon hit.
DeFazio is the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee. Waxman is the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. In a letter dated Dec. 18, they asked the chairs of the two committees to hold a joint hearing on the issue.
In their letter, DeFazio and Waxman reference the 5.7 earthquake near Prague and recent comments by the Oklahoma Geological Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey that recent earthquakes here could be linked to the wastewater injection wells.
The New York Times also recently published an article about the issue.
The oil and gas industry here is an important part of the economy, and it obviously influences the political landscape, but the basic safety of Oklahoma’s residents should supersede the profit margins of energy companies. Members of our all-Republican Congressional delegation should be just as worried about the earthquake issue as politicians from Oregon and California.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court decision Tuesday to throw out last year’s legislative tax cut and Capitol building repairs bill seems so obvious, so fait accompli, that one wonders if Republicans actually planned it this way.
The court decided House Bill 2032, passed last session, was unconstitutional since it violated the rule that legislation must be limited to a single subject. The bill would have cut income taxes from 5.25 percent to 5 percent starting Jan. 1, 2015, with additional cuts if revenues met certain expectations in coming years, while providing $60 million in repairs to the dilapidated state Capitol building.
Income tax cuts. Repairs to an aging building. No matter what one thinks about political logrolling, which is the practice of putting more than one subject in a legislative bill in order to get it passed, it seems clear then and now that HB 2032 was in violation of the state’s constitution.
Here are three speculative reasons for how all this transpired:
Poison pill. As I’ve written before, Republican leaders might have added the Capitol repairs to the income tax bill as a poison pill because they actually didn’t want tax cuts. Oklahoma’s schools have seen their funding drop by more than 22 percent since the Great Recession, and the majority of state workers have gone without a raise for seven years. Tax cuts fit the Republican ideology, but in reality they are terribly wrong for Oklahoma right now. The poison pill or knowing the court would eventually throw out the legislation allows Republicans to save face. They can say they at least tried to pass a tax cut.
Activist Judges. This one might be more of a stretch, but Republicans often complain of “activist judges” when a court ruling doesn’t fit with their ideology. It’s a standard GOP talking point. Could it be that Republicans actually set up this scenario so they could later rant about the legal system and push for electing state appellate judges and justices? Some Republican leaders want term limits for justices, too. This all might seem too involved, but it’s possible, and it overlaps with the poison pill speculation. At least, the GOP can try to score some political points with a bill they knew wasn’t going to stand up to a legal challenge.
Just plain miscalculation. Did Republican leaders really think that providing for tax cuts and building repairs in one bill didn’t violate the single subject rule? That seems unlikely to me. If so, then, well, I don’t know how else to put it, but it seems like a major miscalculation, and some might even say it was not the smartest move ever by the GOP here, which dominates state government right now. Perhaps, it was just a type of “hail Mary” political move to get Republican compromise on the bill, but it still doesn’t add up.
In response to the court’s decision, David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said:
The Supreme Court's decision to strike down misguided income tax cuts offers lawmakers a much needed lifeline to get our budget back into balance. In recent months, it has become more clear that another tax cut is the wrong priority when state revenues are not meeting projections, the state share of health costs is growing, prisons remain critically understaffed, and education funding remains stuck far below 2008 levels. Lawmakers should use this chance to recognize that we can't maintain our prosperity without paying for the services that citizens and businesses need.
Perhaps, in the end, the court has saved the Republicans from themselves, and that’s good for the state. Still, the Capitol building is in desperate need of major repairs, which could be funded by a simple bond issue, and there’s always the next session for Republicans to get it wrong.
The sheer number of earthquakes so far this year in Oklahoma is staggering.
Last week, a New York Times article on this issue noted that there have been at least 2,600 earthquakes this year in Oklahoma. Only a couple of weeks ago a 4.5 magnitude earthquake north of Edmond shook homes and buildings in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. In 2011, a 5.6 earthquake near Prague caused extensive building damage.
Scientists have linked wastewater injection wells used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking and traditional drilling to earthquakes throughout the country and in Oklahoma for quite some time. In the process, the wastewater from drilling is eventually injected with high pressure into rock formations. Some consider this the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of the wastewater, but that view is quickly changing given the number of earthquakes here and elsewhere near injection wells.
The issue, as The Times notes, has pitted the oil and gas industry here in Oklahoma against an increasingly anxious number of people, who fear all the seismic activity is leading to a major earthquake that could destroy buildings and take lives.
Environmentalists have also expressed an interest in the issue. The local chapter of the Sierra Club is circulating a petition that calls on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to “pass rules requiring any injection well site be preapproved with extensive studies done on the site as well as constant monitoring.”
The oil and gas industry’s position on the issue so far seems to be that wastewater injection wells have been around for a long time and there’s never been a problem before, thus the increase in seismic activity has nothing to do with drilling and wastewater disposal methods.
The energy sector, of course, is important economically to Oklahoma and employs thousands of people. The newspaper article notes, for example, that 340,000 jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry in the state. Meanwhile the state government here is now completely dominated by Republicans, who are ideologically opposed to new government regulations.
All this makes it highly unlikely state government officials will approve any type of meaningful, broader regulations on the state level regarding injection wells. Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, it will probably take a major, destructive earthquake to wake people up.