Fracking Creates Political, Legal Turmoil

Image of anti-fracking sign

The environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing process, known as oil and gas fracking, has long been a contentious political conflict around the world.

Now that conflict is starting to manifest itself here in Oklahoma in the form of legal action, community protest and energy-industry supported legislation aimed at shutting down any dissent from those concerned about their own personal safety and their quality of life. The fight is on in full force here and across the country.

Here are three local recent developments to consider:

(1) The Oklahoma Supreme Court, according to media reports, will consider if they should decide if oil companies can be held responsible for the 5.6-magnitude earthquake that struck Prague in 2011, causing damage. The lawsuit, brought by Prague resident Sandra Ladra, claims she suffered serious injuries in the earthquake. After the earthquake, scientists claimed it was caused by the injection well process used in the fracking process. In that process, wastewater used in fracking is injected by high pressure into rock formations into what are called wastewater disposal wells. This process, according to scientists, causes enough instability along existing fault lines to trigger earthquakes.

(2) Hundreds of people turned out at a December meeting to protest a proposal for new hydraulic fracturing near Lake Hefner, which is one of Oklahoma City’s main water supplies. For years, environmentalists have claimed that fracking can lead to water contamination. After the meeting, which included chanting protestors carrying signs, the company requesting city permission to frack around and actually under the lake withdrew its request.

(3) At least eight bills have been introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature in the upcoming legislative session by oil and gas industry supporters that will prohibit that state's local authorities to ban oil and gas drilling in city limits. This comes as places such as Denton, Texas, the state of New York and even the entire country of Scotland have issued different forms of bans on fracking.

In the fracking process, water laced with chemicals is injected into the ground to create fissures in rock formations that release oil and gas. The wastewater from the process is then often injected into the ground again by high pressure, where it’s “stored” in some form. Oil and gas companies, of course, claim the process is safe and environmentally sound. But critics of fracking and the wastewater disposal well process argue that’s simply untrue, claiming it leads to polluted water and now a tremendous surge in earthquakes here and elsewhere.

Oklahoma, which now leads the contiguous United States in the number of earthquakes of 3.0-magnitude or higher, has experienced a fracking boom recently, which has helped create a world oil glut that has driven down prices and now threatens to do much damage to the state’s economy. Meanwhile, the state’s conservative legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin have granted steep tax cuts to oil and gas companies to continue fracking.

Here are my corresponding views on these three issues:

(1) Those companies operating wastewater injection wells should be held financially responsible for the damage caused by earthquakes if scientists determine the overall process causes earthquakes. Rejecting science is a sign of willful neglect. These companies wouldn’t reject the basic scientific engineering that creates the protocols of fracking or the injection well process.

(2) New fracking should never be allowed near an area’s main water supply. There’s too much evidence that fracking can pollute water supplies. There have been films about it and lawsuits over it. The evidences grows that fracking is harmful to our planet and especially to our drinking water.

(3) People in Oklahoma and elsewhere on the local level have the right to vote to protect their water and ensure their safety. There are plenty of places outside urban areas to frack for oil and gas. Given the growing environmental evidence, oil and gas companies should keep their fracking operations as far away as possible from densely populated areas.

As I mentioned, all this comes as world oil prices continue to drop. The price of oil per barrel has dropped from more than $100 last summer to below $50 now. This is an example of our country’s lack of a sensible energy policy. The obvious overall answer is to continue to develop renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro power, but with Republican conservatives in POWER both in Washington and Oklahoma, the planet’s environmental future, and especially here in Oklahoma, seems tragically bleak. There’s no other way to put it.

What About A 2-Year Plan To Raise Teacher Salaries By $10,000?

Image of Joy Hofmeister

(Obviously, I’m in favor of much larger raises for teachers. So I propose a $10,000 raise over two years for all Oklahoma public school teachers, along with an immediate $2,000 bonus, a new laptop computer and a new tablet like an iPad. But, then, I’m not a great mind.—Kurt Hochenauer)

I find it a bit ironic that one of new Oklahoma Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s first major proposals is to try to raise teacher salaries here to the “regional average.”

Some might recall that in 2010 the Oklahoma Education Association, with campaign funding help from the National Education Association, tried to pass State Question 744, which would have raised all Oklahoma public education funding to the regional average. That conceivably could have led to teacher salaries at the regional average.

That question went down in resounding defeat when it was opposed by everyone from former Gov. Brad Henry to editorial writers at The Oklahoman to the supposed left-leaning David Blatt at the Oklahoma Policy Institute to the right-wing extremists at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Some token academics, too, were dusted off and brought out to shake their wise heads together in a collective “no” to SQ 744. Wise, wise people.

According to all these great minds back then, the world as we know it in Oklahoma would have changed radically if SQ 744 would have passed because of all the unspeakable yet certain devastation, most likely in the form of higher taxes on, say, oil and gas companies and a reduction of non-violent prisoners in our vastly overcrowded prisons.

So now along comes Hofmeister, pictured right, using the “regional average” language again in a press release right at the beginning of her term. Of course, this is probably sending shivers down the spines of the above mentioned people with the great minds who have led Oklahoma to one of the lowest education funding levels in the nation, overcrowded classrooms and a major teacher shortage. I’m sure the great minds will correct her soon.

I bet her correction goes like this: Joy, Oklahoma can’t be average. That’s nonsense. We’re at the bottom when it comes to education funding, and we’re always going to be at the bottom. Stop the “regional average” talk, please.

Under the Hofmeister plan, which I believe has little chance of passing given the state’s chronic budget shortfalls because of tax cuts for wealthy people and oil and gas companies, teachers’ salaries would eventually be raised $5,000 from 2012-2013 levels after “only” five years.

I would take the time to argue the raise is a tiny bandage for a gaping wound, but what’s the point since it’s highly unlikely the Oklahoma Legislature will seriously consider the raise, especially given what is now being called a $300 million state budget shortfall. The shortfall amount, however real it is or whatever strange way it gets calculated these days by the state’s great minds, is probably going to grow because a world oil glut caused by fracking has driven down the price of oil, which means even less revenue for the state in the form of gross production taxes.

Note to teachers: Hofmeister’s plan is hollow. It’s aimed at gaining your support, nothing more. If you can, you should flee the state and go someplace where teachers are more appreciated and paid a reasonable amount. If you can’t leave, try to do your best under mediocre conditions and constant harassment from the high-stakes testing advocates. Speak up when you can, but be careful about the backlash. Current state leaders and all the great minds I’ve mentioned in this post, no matter what they say, are definitely NOT on your side. They are on their OWN sides. You are simply a political playground for them.

Obviously, I’m in favor of much larger raises for teachers. So I propose a $10,000 raise over two years for all Oklahoma public school teachers, along with an immediate $2,000 bonus, a new laptop computer and a new tablet like an iPad. But, then, I’m not a great mind.

Teachable Conflict

Image of Picasso work

Some of you might remember I made a formal open records request to view internal records of how the Norman School District handled rape and bullying allegations that recently spawned a large demonstration supported by the organization YES ALL Daughters.

To its credit, the district responded promptly to my request, and after a longer conversation with the district’s attorney in an effort to weed out superfluous material, I was given 141 pages of various emails and other documents related to the issue. It has taken me some time to go through all the documents and then decide how I might approach the matter.

Let me say upfront that I don’t believe the documents provided to me show any crucial errors by the Norman School District or its supporters on this issue. There are instances of tone among the documents that seem a little overly defensive to me, but that’s arguably understandable given the circumstances. I will discuss this defensiveness later in this post.

My main reason for writing this post is this: While Norman students and parents responded in force to the allegations and while the district eventually responded capably and openly to the ensuing protest, I wonder how many school districts there are in Oklahoma and across the country in which this wouldn’t have been the case. Norman is a university town next to a major metropolitan city. The issue received widespread media coverage inside and outside the state from mainstream media outlets and a major feminist web site. What about smaller towns in Oklahoma? Bullying, for example, is a major issue in our culture, and it’s probably no more prevalent than in our schools today.

Let me revisit some specific information about the issue. In the most general sense, rape and bullying allegations involving Norman High School students were reported to school authorities. One student, 18-year-old Tristen Killman-Hardin, was initially suspended from school and then eventually charged with two counts of first-degree rape of a 16-year-old student off campus on Sept. 19. A video of the alleged rape was apparently circulated among some students, according to a news report.

As the Cleveland Country District Attorney’s office investigated the case, more sexual abuse allegations from two other young women against Killman-Hardin surfaced, and at least one of all the alleged victims reported she was bullied at school in relation to the events. Eventually, a feminist-leaning knitting group in Norman got involved in the issue, contacted the national web site Jezebel with information about the cases involving the young women and helped formed the organization YES ALL Daughters. This was the organization that helped put together the student walkout and protest against rape and bullying on Nov. 24. Killman-Hardin was charged about a week later. Norman School District officials also announced the participants in a task force to study gender-based violence and bullying.

Case closed, right? Organized protest works! Well, not so fast.

Public school officials have the difficult task of mediating all sorts of complications among their students. When it rises to the criminal level, they are duty bound to report the information to police and cooperate in any official investigation, which was done in this case. Obviously, school officials can’t monitor student behavior outside of school settings, but what they can do is create an environment in which all students feel safe.

The question is whether the Norman School District or other school districts are doing enough to create safe and comfortable environments for students in these times of school shootings, cyber bullying, drug use and continued sexual violence against women in our culture, one of the historic tragedies of violent behavior. School should ALWAYS be a safe haven. No exceptions.

Before I try to answer the question, let me highlight a few of the items in the documents I received that indicated that some school district officials and one outside official might have been overly defensive about the criticism the district received over how it handled the rape and bullying allegations.

  • In a Nov. 10, 2014 email to Norman School Superintendent Joe Siano, Holly Nevels, who is listed on the district’s site as Director of Secondary Education, refers to one of the victim’s mothers in this way:

    “Scott also feels the victim's mom could now be caught up in the Facebook family/Jerry Springer aspect of this as well (just between us, of course). That certainly could be true, which is why he wants to speak to her again. He also thinks it is becoming about a cause for a certain group -- not really about best interest of the girl. Of course.”

    We can assume that Nevels is referring to Scott Beck, who is the principal of Norman High School. Demonizing bullying victims and those that support them is a classic reason of why it persists. It goes something like this: Oh, she/he is just crazy. He/she just needs to settle down. She/he has ulterior motives.

  • Along these same lines, Chad Vice, a member of the Norman School Board, wrote this about the issue in a Nov. 22 email to Siano:

    “I believe the social media posts still represents an extremely small percentage of the whole. It's most unfortunate that many of the people that are pleased with the district don't speak up but you and I both know that's not the way it works. Talk is cheap when the story is good.

    And then this:

    “I think we should be careful not to breathe any more life into this than has already been done. “

    And this:

    “I'm concerned that the only ones talking are the only ones being heard.

    And this:

    “Surely we have options to be more informative and shut this down.”

    What does Vice want to “shut down”? I want to hope it’s rape and bullying, but I will speculate he means in this context the media coverage, or the growing protest at the time, or even an intense public discussion about sexual violence and bullying in the Norman School District. Vice may have wanted the district to “be careful not to breathe any more life into this than has already been done,” but it’s crucial there’s public awareness about sexual violence against women and bullying. We need more exposure on these issues, not less.

  • Even Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland responded in a somewhat similar fashion in a Nov. 26 email to Cindy Nashert, another member of the Norman School Board:

    “It seems like one of the parents of the victims feels like the punishment is not happening quickly enough so they have taken it out on the school district and taken it public.”

    Again, I believe the focus here, though fairly innocuous, is too much on the behavior of the victims’ supporters and the media coverage. I’m assuming Cleveland means the parent complained and tried to get something done about the issue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a parent complaining nor is there anything wrong if a parent takes an issue public. After all, the Norman School District is supported through public tax dollars and the public has the right to know what’s going on.

  • This has already been widely reported, but the day before the Nov. 24 protest Siano sent out a letter to parents of Norman High School students that claimed “there is information of which parents and guardians should be aware.”

    Siano went on to write, “We do not know who will be in charge of tomorrow's event. While we first believed this would be a student-led and organized demonstration, we are far less certain of that now. As of the writing of this letter, close to 1,000 people have RSVP'd on social media they will be attending. And, what was first communicated on social media as a demonstration that would be less than an hour in length has now evolved into an event that will occupy the front of Norman High until at least 4:20 p.m.”

    Note the very slight hint of paranoia here. I don’t want to exaggerate it. Siano might have felt some legal responsibility to send this out. Of course, we now know for sure the protest was a huge non-violent success that was well attended by local students and widely covered by the media, which translates into more awareness about sexual violence against women and bullying. I believe the walkout and protest ended up becoming a really GOOD thing for the district, the Norman community and state.

  • I’m not even remotely suggesting that Norman School District officials and their supporters tried to sweep any serious allegations under the rug or engage collectively in some secret effort to stop protestors. By far, the records I viewed, when appropriate, expressed in some form or another, overall sympathy and compassion. As I mentioned earlier, none of the documents revealed any crucial errors or organized secrecy. In fact, the documents lead me to fully retract my earlier call for Siano and Beck to step aside as the allegations were investigated.

    But it’s the culture that breeds sexual violence and bullying, and school officials, especially in a major university town near a large city, should be on the forefront of enlightenment when it comes to these two issues. The normal institutional reaction of wanting to contain and manage a festering issue in the media should never trump the idea that sometimes conflict becomes a teachable moment, that sometimes it’s best to embrace rather than to take cover, to accept, to improve and to grow. Students need to learn this through unequivocal modeling. Norman school officials could have done better with this issue as it emerged, but we can say that about most institutions, or even ourselves, in any given circumstance.

    But let me be clear about this: The Norman School District should absolutely use these recent incidents to become without question the leading role model for other Oklahoma school districts in dealing with sexual violence and bullying. Superintendent Siano should make this happen.

    So to answer the question I posed earlier about schools as safe havens, I think that school officials, collectively, and this includes college campuses, should do more to ensure the safety of their students. I hope this Norman case pushes every school administrator in Oklahoma to support or consider bolstering policies relating to sexual violence and bullying at our schools.

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