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A Settled View Never To Be Determined By Science

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The Oklahoman published a really goofy editorial this week about earthquakes and wastewater disposal wells used in the fracking process that bears noting and refuting.

For anyone else that follows the newspaper’s editorial page as closely as I do—and I only do it in an attempt to undermine the right-wing propaganda—you will immediately recognize the stylistics of this particular commentary, titled “Looking for fault as earthquake swarm continues in Oklahoma.”

It’s one of those tongue-in-cheek editorials, complete with what the writer must see as clever wordplay and with attempts at humor on an issue that some people are taking very serious. So we get “NIMBY, meet NUMBY,” not in my backyard but, instead, not UNDER my backyard. Get it? Disposal wells would be UNDER a backyard, right? A real knee slapper. How about this one then? The earthquakes are just maybe because “Atlas is just shrugging more than usual these days.” Hilarious.

But beyond the grating attempt at humor, the editorial does a grave disservice to Oklahomans for not supplying crucial details about studies linking the recent earthquake swarm here to injection wells used in the fracking process. Instead, it relies on generalizations and presumes the issue has produced a mob mentality that—it’s the NUMBYS’ fault—is off target.

The editorial’s thesis is the same argument made by most people in the oil and gas industry. The argument goes like this: There is no definitive proof linking injection wells to the earthquakes, and thus everyone should shut up here and let Atlas do what he’s going to do.

But can there ever be the definitive proof along the lines sought by The Oklahoman and the oil and gas industry, whatever that might be? I would argue that no scientific evidence, no matter how compelling and revealing, would force the oil and gas industry and their sycophants in the media to accept liability for the earthquakes.

In the fracking process, wastewater is injected into disposal or injection wells underground by high pressure. Scientists believe this can cause instability within rock formations that trigger earthquakes along fault lines.

Here’s what we know: (1) Scientists have linked specific injection wells in Oklahoma to earthquakes. (2) Earthquakes are increasing in other states, which are experiencing an increase in hydraulic fracturing or fracking. (3) The government has linked earthquakes to injection wells for decades. I’ve written about that here.

The editorial does mention scientists, but only to make a point that when it come to earthquakes and disposal wells it’s not “settled science.” (Sound familiar? That’s a term conservatives use about global warming as well.) It doesn’t mention the most recent study that actually names four disposal wells in the Oklahoma City area that might be causing problems. It doesn’t mention how the issue transcends Oklahoma and has been a problem in other places. It doesn’t frame the issue in a historical perspective.

It also violates accepted rules of journalism by failing to note the newspaper is owned by Philip Anschutz, who made his millions as an oilman in Wyoming.

The editorial also makes the argument that fracking and disposal wells have been around for a long time without earthquake problems—a regurgitation of an oil and gas industry’s claim—but fails to note the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing in Oklahoma and elsewhere. It’s a false comparison to argue that what’s going on with oil and gas drilling in Oklahoma in 2014 is the same as it was in 1980.

Sometimes, one wonders how the newspaper stays in business. Many of the earthquakes, for example, have struck in or near Edmond, a prized demographic area for many of the newspaper’s advertisers. A recent town hall in Edmond on the issue attracted hundreds of people, many angry at the lack of action on the state level. To dismiss this group of people with patronizing quips seems like a form of business suicide.

Earthquake Issue Needs Grassroots Movement, Political Leadership

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As earthquakes continue to shake things up in record numbers here in central Oklahoma and as more scientific information emerges linking them to the fracking process, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it will take a broad grassroots movement to force government action on the issue.

Those people who care about the value of their property and the personal safety of themselves, family and friends are going to have to set aside political differences to combat the powerful political lobby of the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma. The reality is that the dominant Republican leadership in state government has been slow and reluctant to act despite the urgency of the issue.

Let’s begin by noting two pieces of new information. One, the state has had more small earthquakes than California so far in 2014. That means the state now leads the continental United States in the number of earthquakes it experiences. Two, a new study, published in the journal Science, links the staggering rise in earthquakes to wastewater injection wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process.

In that process, wastewater laced with chemicals used to create horizontally drilled oil and gas wells is disposed by injecting it with high pressure into underground rock formations, which scientists believe creates instability along fault lines and thus produces earthquakes.

Oklahoma is experiencing a mini oil and gas boom right now because of the fracking process. The state legislature in its last session passed a bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin that gave the industry tax breaks for drilling in the state. This was done even as earthquakes continue to rattle homes on an almost daily basis and the link between the drilling process and earthquakes became more distinct. That tax break and inaction on the earthquake issue in the form of an injection well moratorium is an indication of how much political support the oil and gas industry enjoys here.

The lead author of the Science article is Katie Keranen, a former professor at the University of Oklahoma now at Cornell University. The article pinpoints four injection wells near the Oklahoma City area—named Chambers, Flower Power, Deep Throat, and Sweetheart and operated by the New Dominion company—that could be linked to earthquakes here.

The oil and gas industry continues to argue there’s no definitive evidence that the injection wells are causing the earthquakes.

Let’s get back to the politics of the issue. A recent town hall in Edmond on the earthquake surge attracted several hundred people, according to one news account, which stated many people left unsatisfied with all the official qualifications and lack of action.

In today’s Oklahoma political reality, when people in a Republican stronghold such as Edmond start expressing anger about an issue it probably means there’s an extremely real possibility that a grassroots movement could be successful in forcing government officials to take action.

Here are some questions: Are all these recent earthquakes, some in the 4.0-magnitude or larger range, capable of damaging homes over the long term? Could the repeated shaking damage house foundations or window seals or roofs, for example? Can the oil and gas industry be held liable for the damage? What is the possibility of a larger quake in the 6.0- to 7.0-magnitude or larger range? Would lives be lost if the big earthquake hits?

These questions and more are on the minds of a lot of people in the Edmond and Oklahoma City areas and in central Oklahoma in general.

The state government’s lack of a meaningful response to the issue—in particular, the meager responses of Gov. Mary Fallin and members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission—means people need to petition and organize for redress for any property damage they may have sustained or will sustain in the future and for some type of a moratorium on injection wells.

It could also open opportunities in an election year for politicians willing to take on the powerful oil and gas industry here in the state. The Democratic nominee for governor, Joe Dorman, has expressed some concern about the earthquakes, but is it enough?

I have written for months now that it will probably take a major earthquake that causes massive damage and injury to motivate action, but the recent town hall gives out hope that people are waking up. No one is trying to shut down oil and gas drilling here, as if that’s even possible, but this is a time when more government regulation is absolutely necessary to protect lives and personal property.

Sparklers and Sharklers: Planksy Arrives From Europe Just In Time

Image of Fourth of July Planksy

Arr! It’s none another than meself, Planksy, the pirate turkey, the fowl come a calling, the bird with yer word, bringin’ and slingin’ me sparklers and sharklers, mateys, this Fourth of July. I sail in from across thee pond, 300 bird or so strong, after me European tour, with a treasure chest of good stories, a gobbler styled in the latest French fashion, an extra ho ho ho and a barrel of rum, no landlubbers there to a bird, from yer Amsterdam to Paris to London to Dublin. Arr! So yer know the drill. If yer get me sparklers, then let it be known throughout the Atlantic and Oklahoma that yer get a cup or twenty of me rum from me private edition barrel, Planksy’s Reserve, aboard me vessel. If it’s sharklers for yer, then a walkee walkee on the Planksy planky, and then do some swimming, landlubbers, no experience be required, with the fishies that come with a bit of a bite, if yer get me drift.

Sparklers. Ahoy, Dr. Vic Hutchison, once again, come aboard me proud vessel and hoist rum cups with this bird as the sweet fiddlin’ plays a tune of yer liking. Aye, the good Doc Vic will give credit to others, a modest pirate professor, indeed, but he, others with Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education and even more pirates, too, deserve a beauty of a full mast pirate parade for leadin’ the charge against the local politicians who be wantin’ the teachin’ of creationism in our schools. Doc Vic and company be doin’ this year after year after year for the sake of science, not of money. The scurvy, landlubberin’ politicos have been repelled for 15 years now. Arr! It’s a pirate’s dream be true. Sail on sea dogs, Vic and crew, sail on.

Sharklers: Aye, yer basic pirate turkey hates to kick a bird (hee hee) when she’s down but sharklers it’s got to be for Janet Barresi, the state’s Schools Superintendent, who managed to make just about everyone think she’s a rascally bilge rat out for her own good and none other. It’s all for the kiddies, she keeps saying, the kiddies that and the kiddies this, but her system sets lads and lasses up for drownin’ in unreliable tests and forced into thinkin’ they be failures. Arr! Methinks the voters figured it all out when she lost her election in the 2014 electoral siege called The Battle of The Barresi, but let’s add a nice long plank aboard the Planksy’s Wrecked Again for a special topping to this glorious victory. Splashy splashy. Here come the toothie fishes. Hubris always makes them rascals a tad hungry.

Sparklers. Arrrrr! That be yer five “r” arr. Aye, and I, fer one and all pirate turkeys and related species across the state, appreciate the campaign for U.S. Senate by state Sen. Constance Johnson, who tells it true as it can be in Oklahoma, no compromise, no wishy washy, on the basic principals, like reducin’ jail time for non-violent offenders and legalizin’ and regulatin’ cannabis. Can she win? Another pirate’s dreamy wish if my gobbler ever did see one, but she and pirate turkeys and their supporters have no reason for doldrums. Have some pirate fun and be makin’ a point. The barrel aboard ship, now docked at the Bricktown Canal, awaits yer arrival, the esteemed Senator Johnson. I bow to your courageousness and style, with my gobbler in a flutter.

Sharklers. Sharklers galore go to the scurvy millionaire and billionaire big-shot executives from the Devon, Continental Resources and Chesapeake energy companies here in Oklahoma City. Arr! Methinks I smell some rascally stench from down below deck. What these bilge rats wanted and got were tax breaks for their companies because many a big-shot executive knows paying taxes be a fool’s game and plundering be a sure thing to get yer doubloons in Oklahoma where the conservatives are the captains of the political ship. Arr! But we create so many jobs, they cry in their grogs, but they be all quiet like about how they line their OWN pockets with doubloons. The science types also say the oily and gassy related companies are responsible for all these new earthquakes, but state leaders won’t do nuthin’ about it. The plank awaits yer arrival, me executives. The fiddler has a special tune for yer as well as you be makin’ the leap. Before the splash, can yer hand over some treasure for those school kiddies Janet wants to flunk so bad?

Sparklers.The famous annual sharkler and sparkler award ceremony would not be complete without me mentioning the fowl who be just returnin’ from France, the bird with the beautiful gobbler that just recently swayed seductively in the Dublin breeze aboard me vessel as I crossed the sea. That would be meself, the world’s best connoisseur of tofurkey and barrels of rum. Enjoy your Fourth of July holiday and be careful at yer local turkey crossin’.

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