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Environmental Lesson

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If anyone here is still under the illusion that energy companies will always automatically do the right thing when it comes to the environment, look no further than the massive, historic $5.5 billion cleanup settlement arising from actions by Oklahoma’s former Kerr-McGee Corporation.

The settlement was announced last Thursday by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the settlement, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, which purchased Kerr-McGee in 2006, would pay the massive cleanup amount to restore polluted sites dating back to 1928. It’s the largest pollution cleanup settlement ever.

Before Kerr-McGee was sold in 2006, according to the DOJ, it spun off the polluted assets into a company called Tronox and that company was left insolvent and couldn’t afford the cleanup. One U.S. Attorney called it a “corporate shell game,” designed to evade responsibility for the pollution, which includes uranium mines in New Mexico and Arizona.

Kerr-McGee was also the focus of legal and media scrutiny after state resident Karen Silkwood died in 1974. Silkwood worked at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication site near Crescent. Silkwood, a labor union activist, was allegedly contaminated by the plutonium manufactured at the plant. She died in a mysterious car accident, and a movie starring Meryl Streep and Cher about her life was released in 1983.

Kerr-McGee, once located in downtown Oklahoma City, was lauded in this brainwashing newspaper article published in The Oklahoman in 1999. The article, which never mentions the Silkwood saga or the company’s pollution legacy, begins, “World-class, generous, involved, leaders, company with a heart - words used by Oklahoma City officials and citizens to describe one of their most respected neighbors, Kerr-McGee Corp.” A few years later after this glowing tribute, the “world-class” company was sold to Anadarko, based in Texas.

A larger lesson here is that the Kerr-McGee case gives us every reason to reasonably suspect that energy companies are quite capable of doing massive harm to the environment while trying to evade responsibility for it. That suspicion is why we need strict state and federal regulations governing their operations and an intense focus on developing cleaner, renewable energy sources.

The anti-EPA sentiment in this state, fueled by conservative political dogma and The Oklahoman, is widely misplaced and a major historical error.

Oklahoma is currently experiencing a boom in natural gas production because of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling process tied to water pollution and now earthquakes. Does the $5.5 billion settlement send a clear enough message to oil and gas companies here or will history repeat itself once again?

Snark Attack

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Sometimes it seems just too obvious why education funding has dropped in Oklahoma more than any other state in the nation since 2008.

In a Saturday editorial brief under its Scissor Tales column, The Oklahoman weighs in with a bit of snarky criticism about last week’s education rally at the state Capitol that drew around 25,000 people. So this is what passes for reasoned logic around this place:

More than a soupcon of self-righteousness was in evidence at Monday’s state Capitol rally for school spending increases. Participants felt justified in taking a day off (and in many cases forcing their students to take a day off) to provide a teachable moment for legislators, to use a trite expression. Kids don’t have the right to skip school to provide a teachable moment as they define it. Teachers apparently do. With so much crowing about how many people the rally drew, we wonder what the crowd count would have been had the rally been staged during spring break. The Legislature was in session most of that week. How about a Saturday rally that wouldn’t affect the teachable moments that take place in classrooms on most Mondays? Nah. That would depress the participation rate. Like the rest of us, teachers need their weekends free.

Let’s get this straight. The Oklahoman is pretty much arguing that the fact some “self-righteous” and “crowing” teachers took a day off to ask for more education funding is the important issue here, not the fact that school funding has dropped by more than 22 percent since the economic downturn in 2008. Note, as well, according to the newspaper, that those pesky teachers “need their weekends free,” even though I bet many of them were grading or preparing for classes Saturday and Sunday.

In a previous editorial, The Oklahoman opposed a legislative plan that would divert money from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to boost school funding, but it offered no solutions to the problem of inadequate funding.

The newspaper, for years, has taken the position that since education funding receives the majority of the state budget it follows that somehow the state is doing the best it can. The newspaper has also argued that school administrators are never satisfied about the education money they receive from the state even though the premise has never and will never be tested.

Add to this the newspaper’s invalid argument that money has no bearing on student performance and its incessant argument that schools should be given more testing and assessment mandates even as their funding decreases. Throw in some basic snarky criticism of teachers.

These illogical arguments are at the core of the current assault on public education here and elsewhere in the country.

Exactly Backwards

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A new study published this week predicts a grim future for the planet because of climate change caused by carbon emissions, but here in Oklahoma legislators are trying to penalize people who use solar panels on their homes.

The far-reaching and massive study, conducted by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns of the catastrophic consequences posed by global warming, including future famines, population displacement, mass migrations and violent conflict over resources. Poorer countries will likely fare the worst.

The evidence of climate change and global warming, according to the study, is all around us, from melting arctic ice to dying wildlife to droughts to severe weather events. The main cause for global warming remains manmade carbon dioxide emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels.

The dire scenarios outlined by the report will hopefully bolster efforts throughout the world to create cleaner, renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydropower.

Oklahoma legislators, however, aren’t going to let the planet’s survival get in the way of protecting the status quo.

A bill that has passed in the Oklahoma Senate on a 41 to 0 vote would charge people who send electricity back to the grid by the use of solar panels or wind turbines a tariff or surcharge for doing so. Senate Bill 1456 has also passed a House committee on a 7 to 0 vote.

Supporters of the bill claim the extra charges would help utility companies build and maintain the necessary infrastructure to handle the incoming electricity, but it seems terribly counter intuitive to penalize people for using renewable energy given the dire impact of climate change. If anything, utility companies should be rewarding solar users for lessening demand during peak usage times and helping the environment.

The bottom line is that homes and buildings using solar and wind energy threaten the current business model of utility companies, which must change to become both a sole provider and a distributor of electricity. Part of that change is embracing renewable energy.

The bill has it exactly backwards. Solar and wind power users contributing to the grid should get more incentives, not tariffs.

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