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Fracking Facing Legal Remedies

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Will it eventually take larger class action lawsuits to reform and initiate regulations governing the oil and gas hydraulic fracturing or fracking drilling process in Oklahoma and elsewhere?

Given that the oil and gas political lobby is so entrenched in states like Oklahoma and Texas it seems logical that the court system might well be the only alternative to make fracking safer and to recover damages from its impact.

In Oklahoma, the main problem when it comes to fracking right now seems to be related to earthquakes. Scientists claim disposal wells used in the fracking process can trigger earthquakes, such as the one near Prague in 2011 that caused damage.

A Prague woman recently filed a lawsuit to recover damages she suffered in the 2011 5.7-magnitude quake, as first reported in The Journal Record. Her lawsuit targets two energy-related companies.

The lawsuit is just one of an increasing number of legal actions related to alleged damage caused by the fracking process, according to the International Business Times. I would argue that the lawsuits are, at one level, a direct result of ineffective regulations governing the fracking process. State leaders here and in other states long tied to the oil and gas industry, such as Texas, have been slow to react despite growing scientific evidence linking disposal wells to earthquakes.

One question raised by the individual lawsuits is if broader class action lawsuits eventually filed in federal court could bring about nationwide reform, which might include a moratorium on disposal wells. Other issues related to fracking, such as alleged water contamination, could be addressed legally as well in such lawsuits.

It becomes a question of property rights. Can an oil and gas company damage homes or pollute the common grounds through their actions without any liability or consequence? It’s difficult to imagine a court ruling in favor of that proposition. What makes it difficult, however, is proving collective damage and a scientific consensus. The oil and gas industry has absolutely no fiduciary reason right now to accept liability. They have the money to fight it out in courts.

As I’ve long argued, the oil and gas industry is vitally important to the Oklahoma economy, but, collectively, the rights of individual home owners are far more important. If people can’t own a home or live in a home in this state without the constant fear it will be damaged or even toppled by an earthquake caused by the fracking process, then the geographical space known as Oklahoma becomes eventually nothing more than a vast industrial tract.

An Okie Contradiction

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It might be an exercise in futility to point out the numerous contradictions in commentary published by The Oklahoman editorial board, but it probably doesn’t hurt to maintain a historical record of the newspaper’s shoddy argumentation skills.

Take last Wednesday, for example. Two rather innocuous editorials published on the newspaper’s site NewsOK.com—one lauding the retiring U.S Sen. Tom Coburn and the other calling for corrections reform—seem fairly straightforward and disconnected from each other. A closer review, however, shows in one respect they collectively present a major contradiction.

The editorial lauding Coburn, “Town hall helps show why Tom Coburn is so popular in Oklahoma,” (Aug, 6, 2014) is simple enough. The newspaper has long presented Coburn as a wise sage that knows how to tell it like it is. The editorial points out that at a recent town hall Coburn “offered a template for what a good politician should be.” I have long argued against this clichéd interpretation of Coburn, who I believe used partisan political stunts in his Washington career to simply draw attention to himself, but the overall tone of the editorial doesn’t bother me that much.

But there IS one thing in the editorial that stands out. The editorial notes that at the town hall Coburn “didn’t do any two-stepping,” whatever that means. It then quotes Coburn on the issue of marijuana legalization. Coburn apparently said, “I don’t believe marijuana should be legalized for anything. … People in Oklahoma who really want marijuana legalized, Colorado is open. Go there.” That’s some good politicking there, right?

Leave aside the fact, for a moment, how inane Coburn sounds here. In the immortal words of Merle Haggard, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” Coburn’s just singing his own version of “Okie From Muskogee.” But consider that the newspaper has presented Coburn for years as a great statesman with a wide-ranging intellect. Coburn’s get-out-of-town admonishment, by almost any standard, would be considered at the very least a throwaway line or just plain juvenile. But that itself isn’t the major contradiction.

Another editorial, “Reason to believe corrections reform bill may live again in Oklahoma,” (Aug. 6, 2014), published on the very same day, essentially supports the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a bill passed two years ago that aims to lower incarceration rates in Oklahoma. The bill promotes the idea that people on “probation can get treatment for addictions or mental health issues,” according to the editorial.

So let’s get this straight. On one hand, we’re supposed to love the retiring Tom Coburn, who we might rightly assume might dismiss any type of reform of drug laws here with flippant, right-wing rhetoric. Just get out of here already with the legalization stuff. On the other hand, we’re supposed to get behind an initiative that, in essence, works towards reducing penalties for or, shall I say, “decriminalizing” at least some forms of drug use. This is sensible policy, of course, while Coburn’s remark represents on a symbolic level the type of philosophy that has led to the state’s high incarceration rates in the first place.

Does any of this matter? Well, I do think it’s fair to say that these types of contradictions in the state’s largest newspaper at the very least haven’t helped to enlighten Oklahoma voters. Arguing for sensible governmental policies while extolling the virtues of a right-wing politician who uses reductionist rhetoric instead of seriously discussing such policies cancel each other out.

Earthquake Task Force Idea Deserves Support

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An Oklahoma state senator, along with a Tulsa geologist, have called for establishing a federal task force to study the dramatic increase of earthquakes here that scientists argue is related to oil and gas drilling processes.

It’s a good idea. State leaders, including Gov. Mary Fallin and members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, have been slow to respond to the issue. Will the ultra conservative Oklahoma Congressional delegation get behind the proposal despite the powerful oil and gas industry political lobby?

State Sen. Jerry Ellis, a Democrat from Valiant, and Tulsa geologist Bob Jackman floated the idea on Monday. According to a StateImpact Oklahoma article, Ellis and Jackman issued a press release that called the situation an “emergency.” They want a federal task force comprised of scientists and researchers from universities, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey to look into the matter. Representatives from the oil and gas industry would be asked to join the task force as well.

The statistics are incredibly alarming. Oklahoma now leads California in the number of earthquakes of a 3.0-magnitude or higher. So far this year, the state has experienced more than 200 earthquakes of 3.0-magnitude or higher, which can cause damage. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck near Prague in 2011, causing damage. The number of temblors has been steadily increasing. It’s not uncommon in parts of Oklahoma these days to feel several earthquakes each week or two or three on any given day.

Scientists claim the earthquakes are caused by the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process. Oklahoma is experiencing an oil and gas mini-boom because of fracking. In the fracking process, wastewater is eventually injected underground by high pressure into what are called injection or disposal wells. It is believed that process is causing what have become known as “earthquake swarms” here.

A relatively recent town hall on the issue in Edmond drew hundreds of concerned citizens. Some people, including myself, have called for a moratorium on disposal wells until the matter can be further studied. Scientists and the federal government have long known that injection wells can cause earthquakes. I wrote about that here.

The oil and gas industry’s consistent position, supported by the editorial page of the state’s largest newspaper, is that it’s not conclusive the injection wells are causing the earthquakes. The oil and gas industry, of course, has no compelling reason to accept liability. That’s why a federal task force, operating outside the powerful oil and gas lobby, could be the answer.

I’m only speculating, but prominent members of Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation, including the state’s two senators, could try to squash the idea if the oil and gas industry urges them to do so.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe has accepted more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry since 1989. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole has accepted $616,250 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2001. The campaign contribution information comes from the site OpenSecrets.org.

Unfortunately, money has corrupted our political process so much that it’s possible only a large, damaging earthquake or series of damaging earthquakes will generate any real action. The proposed task force, however, remains a solid idea. Who will champion it in Washington?

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