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Earthquakes Create New Oklahoma Reality

Fracking the Ocean by Truthout.org on Flickr The Commons

The earthquakes started to hit this past late Friday evening and early Saturday morning as I sat in my living room trying to watch television.

There were at least four in a row, a fact I confirmed later through the United States Geological Survey site here. One of the quakes—a 4.0 magnitude—struck shortly after midnight followed shortly later by another quake of 3.2-magnitude. During the 4.0-magnitude quake, I remember thinking that if it didn’t stop, if it continued for any more length of time, my house was going to collapse on top of me. It woke my wife up, and she came out in the living room.

She hadn’t felt the smaller quakes, which seemingly “led” to the larger one. I told her about them. Literally rattled, she tried to go back to sleep because she was running in a local race early that morning. I told her I’d stay up for a while in case the wave of earthquakes kept rolling on and grew in intensity. Sure enough, the 3.2-magnitude followed a few minutes later.

Should I wake up my wife and go outside and wait out the earthquake wave? What if the wave simply didn’t stop and the quakes got bigger? What if they stayed about the same in intensity? Could the repeated shaking lead to damage that could physically harm us? But the Oklahoma seismic world calmed itself momentarily then, and after an hour or so of rattling-free peace, I went to bed.

This is the new Oklahoma reality, and more and more scientists are confirming the surge in earthquakes here is caused by the wastewater injection well process used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The fracking boom here may have brought economic benefits to some people in our state, but it’s now becoming clear that for those of us in central and northern parts of Oklahoma it has brought a great deal of anxiety. Are we safe in our own homes? How much have our homes been damaged already? When will the big one strike?

The state government line is that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is on the job, protecting our interests and diligently looking into why the state has become more seismically active than even California. But that’s not much solace to anyone in the early morning hours trying to sleep or relax when the quakes strike one after another.

I will predict this: If the earthquakes don’t stop before the 2016 elections, the issue will become even more political. If a big earthquake strikes again, such as the 2011 5.6-magnitude temblor near Prague, then I suspect more and more people will find the courage to speak out against the special interests of the oil and gas industry, which has a powerful and well-funded political lobby.

Those special interests were highlighted recently in an article by Environment and Energy Publishing (E&E) under its Energy Wire section. The article points out that the University of Oklahoma was trying to pursue a $25 million donation for a new building from local oil baron Harold Hamm at a time when scientists affiliated with OU were trying to make sense of the state’s dramatic surge in earthquakes.

Here are the basic facts to consider: The Oklahoma Geological Survey, which studies the earthquake issue, is affiliated with OU. Billionaire Harold Hamm is the founder and chief executive officer of Continental Resources, a large oil and gas company in Oklahoma City and a big OU donor. OU President David Boren sits on the board of directors of Continental Resources and has been paid $1.6 million since 2009, according to the E&E article.

The new article rehashes the fact Hamm met with OU officials and a seismologist earlier to discuss the earthquake issue as it emerged. Here’s a key paragraph in the article:

Hamm urged Boren to prohibit Holland from talking to reporters about quakes and instead have the university's spokeswoman handle such questions. When The New York Times wrote about Oklahoma earthquakes in December 2013, he forwarded the story to Boren with a note: "This situation could spiral out of control easily."

Austin Holland is a seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Read this from a well-researched article in The New York Review of Books about the plight of universities these days. I know Boren is not running a private university, but he's making millions one way or another. It's the same thing.

. . . In 2012, thirty-six private university presidents earned more than a million dollars—some a lot more—and many supplement their salaries with “service” on corporate boards. Especially in straitened times, these excesses are, to say the least, tasteless. They make presidential homilies urging students to put aside selfishness ring hollow. . . .

But as interesting as it might be to some people that there were and probably remain conflicts of interests when it comes to OU, the oil and gas industry and the study of Oklahoma’s earthquake issue, it’s really only a side show.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey has now publicly linked earthquakes to the injection well process as have scientists outside of the state. There remains little doubt about what’s causing our homes and offices to rattle on a daily basis. But the real issue beyond the appearance of conflicts of interest and the hard science is the question over what we should do now.

Should the state place a moratorium on injection wells used in fracking? How many injection wells should be shut down? Can the entire fracking process be changed? For many people like me who live in the primary earthquake-prone area right now, the issue seems beyond urgent.

The issue is a major state crisis that’s not getting the attention it deserves. The earthquakes are occurring in major population centers. It’s time to take more action.

Fracking is a process in which water laced with chemicals is injected deep underground to create fissues that release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Scientists believe this process creates instability along fault lines that trigger earthquakes in Oklahoma, which may experience as many as 800 quakes of a 3.0 magnitude or higher this year, according to E&E.

On Monday afternoon, I was in my office at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond when things started to shake. My office is on the ground floor of a large two-story building. Again, I was struck by the feeling that if the shaking continued any longer or grew just a little bit stronger, there would have been damage, maybe even injuries.

Even worse, it happened so fast that I didn’t think to crawl under my desk to protect myself. My office is relatively far from an outside door, and, anyway, the earthquake experts say people should take cover before running.

This is the day-to-day reality fracking has brought to Oklahoma, and the last thing people here need to do is just incorporate it into their daily perceptions and experiences. People need to speak up. This is not normal and natural. Fracking is not normal and natural. Speak up.

Study Shows Oklahoma Has Low Two-Parent Home Rate

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol and church

A new study showing southern states, including Oklahoma, have low rates of two-parent homes when compared to northern states should come as no surprise.

Oklahoma has one of the highest divorce rates in the country, and people here marry at younger ages than much of the country. The state also has non-existent to weak or watered down sexual education in public schools. It’s the same story we’ve been dealing with for years here.

Much attention has been focused recently on data showing that boys raised in homes with two biological parents become more successful economically than children raised in single-parent homes, even in those homes in which a parent has a partner. Teenage girls raised in two-parent homes, studies have also shown, have lower rates of pregnancy, according to the article.

But another larger issue is the hypocrisy. Conservative red-state politicians extol family and religious values yet the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of their constituents or states. Strict fundamentalist religious beliefs, in a general sense, appear to lead to a lack of knowledge and, in some cases, the maturity needed for healthier marriages.

The new study, which was outlined in The New York Times, showed only 39 percent of children in Oklahoma live in two-parent homes. Overall, that makes the state fifth behind Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. In all, five other states ranked at 39 percent as well. Northern states, such as Utah at 57 percent, Minnesota at 56 percent and Nebraska at 55 percent, had the highest percent of children living in two-parent homes.

Oklahoma, which launched the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) in 1999 to lower the number of divorces, still remains a state with a high divorce rate. In 2011, it even led the nation in the percentage of divorces. It has consistently ranked in the top five states for divorce. Meanwhile, OMI has spent millions of federal dollars through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to lower the rate, but has apparently given up on its loftier goal to reduce the divorce rate by one-third.

So, although some might argue otherwise, Oklahoma hasn’t really moved much forward from 1999. Conservative, southern state so-called family values, stressed by religious fundamentalists here, and the new Republican majority in state government, haven’t even begun to solve the state's numerous social problems. In fact, one could make the argument that the religious fundamentalists, emboldened by the state’s Republican majority, continue to be the problem, not the answer.

In the end, what constitutes a “family unit” is more fluid than ever before, and I’m always left feeling studies like this one don’t tell the entire story. Overall, the dry data, for example, doesn’t tell the success stories of children who grow up in single-parent homes or are raised by two fathers or two mothers or by parents and stepparents. Perhaps, more emphasis on a national level should be placed on helping blended families and non-traditional families. In other words, the focus shouldn’t necessarily focus on lowering divorce rates of biological parents as it should be on improving the lives of children in economic and educational terms despite the relationship status of their parents.

Still, divorce rates remain high here as do teenage pregnancies.

The solutions have always been obvious: The state needs to invest more overall in its educational systems, and it should offer comprehensive sex education classes, which would then explain different methods of contraception. (The contraception issue, in particular, would surely ignite protests from the religious right.) Overall, the religious right and school counselors and parents should discourage people from marrying so young here. Leaders here need to help younger people de-romanticize marriage and especially wedding preparations and celebrations. A wedding and a honeymoon don’t create a long-term, healthy marriage.

The Pope Is A Believer

General Audience with Pope Francis by Catholic Church England and Wales on Flickr The Commons

The pope’s moral argument on global warming seems lost on Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who has spent much of his political career denying the negative ramifications of mankind’s pollution of the planet’s atmosphere.

The main message given in Pope Francis’s recent encyclical is not the concept of global warming itself or the huge, mounting evidence of how carbon emissions have accelerated it. The pope, along with most rational people, takes that for granted because of scientific evidence.

What the pope, from his religious perspective, is saying is that global warming can be blamed on “collective selfishness.” The pope’s encyclical states this about earth and how humans treat it:

We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her [earth] at will.

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.

The pope, of course, frames the issue on religious and moral terms, whether one agrees with the approach or not. He’s not a scientist, but he can read and understand the scientific record. Inhofe, who is widely known for calling the science underlying the impact of global warming a “hoax,” isn’t a scientist either, but he also doesn’t seem to get the pope’s message.

In response to the encyclical, Inhofe, chairperson of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, trotted out his usual arguments:

I am concerned that his [Pope Francis] encyclical will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history.

It’s the poor that spend the largest portion of their expendable income to heat their homes, and they will be the ones to carry the heaviest burden of such onerous policies.

The statement contains two of Inhofe’s favorite global warming fallacies: (1) Those “alarmists” will want some type of tax on carbon emissions, and (2) the poor will have to pay up. But those alarmists include highly educated scientists relying on a vast amount of scientific evidence, and there’s no reason in the world that poor people should have to pay more in taxes to reduce carbon emissions. (The pope would obviously be against hurting impoverished people.) These are the Inhofe conjectural myths we’ve endured for years now, but they miss the pope’s larger moral message.

Pope to Inhofe: Polluting the planet is morally wrong and selfish.

Inhofe to Pope: Taxes, poor people.

To argue that there’s a disconnect here is an understatement. Obviously, Inhofe wants to repeat his tired talking points to support the oil and gas industry, which has contributed more than $1.7 million to his campaigns in his political career. The pope intentionally wants to frame the issue on a larger level of morality, which Inhofe can’t or won’t address directly.

Those of us concerned about the environment and global warming can hope the pope’s message resonates and moves people to action, but as long as Inhofe and his fellow Republicans remain in power nothing much is going to happen.

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