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.