This is a blog of populist and liberal information and ideas, advancing the cause of truth and justice while fighting the ugly tyranny of right-wing oppression in Oklahoma and its surrounding environs.

EnergyWire: Fallin Slow To React On Earthquakes

Fracking the Ocean by Truthout.com

People living in central Oklahoma should be grateful EnergyWire reporter Mike Soraghan continues to investigate and write about the dramatic surge of earthquakes here.

I’m one of those central Oklahomans whose property and safety have been threatened almost daily by manmade earthquakes, which scientists claim are caused by a component of the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. I appreciate and I’m grateful for Soraghan’s insightful and well-researched reporting.

Our local media, in particular The Oklahoman, which is owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz who made his money in the fossil fuel drilling industry, has shamefully abdicated its journalistic responsibility when it comes to the relationship between fracking and earthquakes. It seems obvious why this is the case. The oil and gas industry spends advertising dollars here to depict itself as vital, benevolent and neighborly, and it has a powerful, well-financed political lobby.

The oil and gas industry here isn’t going to let several hundred earthquakes a year get in its way. The local media complies. This makes all mainstream media reporting here seem suspect, which isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.

In recent weeks, Soraghan has reported on the earthquake crisis after going through “thousands of pages” of documents related to how state officials have responded to our earthquake crisis. These documents were obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act. He has written about the cozy relationship between University of Oklahoma President David Boren and Harold Hamm, the chief executive officer and founder of Continental Resources, an Oklahoma City-based energy company. This relationship, as Soraghan has reported, may have influenced how the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is affiliated with the university, responded to the crisis.

Now Soraghan has reported how Gov. Mary Fallin and her staff were slow in their response to the issue after the 5.6 or 5.7-magnitude (it’s been reported differently) earthquake near Prague on Nov. 5, 2011. Soraghan writes that the documents “show a team in the governor's office that moved slowly to address the quakes even as the earth rumbled more and more frequently.”

Soraghan outlines how a Fallin aide contacted a Devon Energy lobbyist who sent “talking points” to the governor’s office about the earthquake issue. One of those talking points goes like this: “There is no current evidence that oil & gas operations had anything to do with the recent large earthquakes in Oklahoma." That tells the story succinctly and obviously.

In the fracking process, water laced with chemicals is injected by high pressure into underground rock formations that create fissures, which release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected again by high pressure into what are called disposal or injection wells. An increasing number of scientists and studies claim the injection well process is to blame for the state’s huge increase in earthquakes over the last few years.

Oklahoma, which just a few years ago had extremely minimal seismic activity, now leads the contiguous United States in the number of 3.0-magnitude or higher earthquakes. The state experienced 585 such quakes in 2014. It’s on track to experience more than 800 this year.

It’s not unusual to feel two or three earthquakes in central Oklahoma each day. This has produced a great deal of anxiety among many residents here. They’re obviously concerned about their safety and their property. Even if there’s never a major quake, say, in the 6.0- to 7.0 range here, what is the overall impact on buildings that shake and rattle almost every day for, literally, years and years? What if you own one or more of those buldings?

The state’s earthquake surge has paralleled the fracking and horizontal drilling energy boom here in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

The larger answer to the problem is to develop renewable and cleaner energy sources, but that’s not the immediate solution that’s needed in this case. What really needs to happen now are moratoriums on injections wells in certain areas of the state and more regulations on how they operate. Could the state require recycling the wastewater? We need substantial action.

What Soraghan’s reporting tells us is that important state leaders here have shown at the very least an appearance of bias towards the oil and gas industry on this issue. Maybe that’s changing now. Fallin’s office and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have now noted the strong link between injection wells and earthquakes. Boren is adamant geologists at OU have complete academic freedom to study the issue. But is it too late?

As I’ve noted before, if the earthquakes continue to rattle us here in central Oklahoma the issue will be politically contentious in the 2016 general election. Many of the quakes are near the relatively wealthy suburb of Edmond, which is a conservative bastion. “Drill, baby, drill,” the conservative mantra, has turned into “shake, baby, shake.” The anxiety over property values and personal safety will surely trump political ideology.

A personal note: I’ve written about the earthquake issue for several years now. It’s not unusual for me to feel an earthquake as I’m actually writing a post about earthquakes and injection wells. We’re living through this crisis on a daily basis in central Oklahoma. It’s time for people to speak up.

The Court Has Ruled: Remove The Monument

The Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma

The Oklahoman editorial board has weighed in on the Ten Commandments monument controversy with a tortuous and illogical argument that the state should now repeal its constitution.

The repeal of Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution would presumably allow the monument to stay on state Capitol grounds, but it’s not that simple, and even if it were the unintended consequences complicate the matter further.

In a 7 to 2 vote last week, the Oklahoma Supreme court ruled that the monument must be removed from state Capitol grounds because it was in violation of the Oklahoma Constitution. Article 2, Section 5 states:

No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.

Since then the conservative crowd in Oklahoma has been in a complete meltdown, suggesting everything from repealing the constitution to impeaching the judges who made the decision. Both Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Gov. Mary Fallin have publicly pledged their support for keeping the monument at the Capitol. One lawmaker has even made the claim that the ruling “could even lead to churches, synagogues, mosques and other buildings used for religious purposes being unable to receive police and fire protection as they would be directly or indirectly benefiting from public monies.”

The monument was placed on the Capitol grounds in 2012 after the legislature voted to do so. It was financially supported by state Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow), an ordained Southern Baptist deacon whose family donated money to have it installed. It has been a subject of controversy since then and has become a huge waste of energy and time, except for the political theater and, well, frankly, the irony. The Satanic Temple, for example, has announced it, too, wants to place a monument on the state Capitol grounds. These are the unintended consequences. Expect more.

The recent editorial by The Oklahoman doesn’t actually specifically support keeping the Ten Commandments monument, but it does reminds us of the legal roots of Article 2, Section 5 in the state’s constitution. But it’s a watered down and selected version of the amendment’s history, and it’s a disingenuous way to support keeping the monument and fueling the controversy, which only makes the state look bad and takes away from energy that might be applied to solving some of the state’s problems.

Here’s the newspaper’s argument: Article 2, Section 5 was based on the so-called Blaine Amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed by U.S. Rep. James Blaine in 1875. (Note the year. That’s important.) The amendment was defeated in the U.S. Senate, but every state except for 11 eventually adopted a version of the language of the amendment, which read:

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

President Ulysses S. Grant favored the amendment in 1875, but as historians have long noted its creation was based on an anti-Catholic schools sentiment. It was, they argue, designed to prevent Catholic schools from receiving public money. Grant, however, and this is important, cast the issue in the broader terms of providing free public education for all children and the overall separation of church and state.

The Oklahoman, of course, has cherry picked the historical facts to argue the Blaine Amendment “was designed only to suppress Catholic influence in state-funded settings, but not to suppress other Christian denominations’ influence.” Thus, it goes on, we should repeal our state’s Constitution because, we can presume, the section was intended in a narrow, discriminatory way. To be fair, “state Blaines” might conflict with the non-persecution clause in the First Amendment, as argued in this law review article, but there’s the much larger issue when it comes to the Establishment Clause.

There’s no doubting the Blaine amendment was motivated in part by preventing government funding for Catholic schools, but the fact its language was so sweeping and that it was framed under the concept of free public education leaves little doubt there was more to it than basic discrimination.

Why didn’t the states simply refer to Catholic schools in the amendment? Well, they couldn’t because that would have meant explicit religious discrimination. Consequently, the language was intentionally broadened. It’s ridiculous to assume that those people writing state constitutions or adding to them would not note the sweeping nature of the language and see the consequences. This is unlike the recent “intent” reading of the Affordable Care Act by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is contemporary. It’s easy to look at recent Internal Revenue Service regulations to see the bill’s intent. It’s more difficult to interpret the intent of a presidential or Congressional speech more than a hundred years later.

So for decades, Article 2, Section 5 has remained on the books in Oklahoma. Now it has to go? The Blaine Amendment issue on the federal level surfaced in 1875. The Oklahoma Constitution was adopted in 1907. Suddenly, we’re just now arguing the basis for how a state constitutional section violated some sense of intentional legal “purity.” This comes in the midst of a contemporary controversy over a religious monument. Meanwhile, the initial intention of a proposed and defeated amendment to the Constitution has been forever obscured by the large time frame.

As I’ve mentioned, here are two other sections of the Oklahoma Constitution that also merit consideration in the argument:

Article 1, Section 1: The State of Oklahoma is an inseparable part of the Federal Union, and the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.

Article 1, Section 2: Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of the State shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship; and no religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights. Polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.

The first section takes us to the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which “prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion . . . . “ This is exactly what the monument does. It legally sanctions the Judeo-Christian tradition as superior to other religion in Oklahoma unless we allow other religious monuments on state Capitol grounds as well. The other section I cite prohibits religious discrimination, which presumably would mean bigotry aimed at Catholics or any religion. This is complicated further by the political union over the last decades of some Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, with Catholics over issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Many Protestants aren’t discriminating against Catholics on these points, right? The historical discrimination against Catholics has been replaced by political expediency if not religious unity. In other words, the discriminatory argument related to the Blaine amendment doesn’t retain contemporary validity and the state's constitution explicitly protects religious expression outside the public square.

In other words, The Oklahoman has presented yet another shallow argument that simplifies the long running and never ending issue of the separation of church and state. Let’s be clear that such a separation is vitally necessary to retain a functioning democracy.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 that allowed Texas to keep a Ten Commandments monument on its Capitol grounds, but the Oklahoma case is much different than the Texas case. The Oklahoma monument is crassly religious and exclusive when viewed in its entirety. It’s not part of an overall exhibit of various religious traditions. Its supporters falsely claim it's some type of legal framework for Western culture, but pre-Judeo-Christian ancient history provides us with all types of legal precedents that echo and go beyond some of the rather puny edicts outlined by the Ten Commandments. So we shouldn’t “covet,” right? What about rape and torture? Why aren’t they mentioned? These horrific acts seem more important that internal, psychological coveting.

It the end, it’s an embarrassing Okie spectacle that’s going to drag on and on, and The Oklahoman does a disservice to the state’s image by not simply urging government officials to comply with the court ruling. So let me say it: Remove the monument.

State Supreme Court Makes Another Good Decision

Fracking In Karnes County by Sean Paul Kelley on Flickr The Commons

The fallout from the Ten Commandments monument controversy at the state Capitol dominated local news here last week, but another Oklahoma Supreme Court decision was just as important in a far more practical sense.

The court, which decided the monument was in violation of the state constitution and must be removed from the Capitol grounds, also decided people could sue energy-related companies for damages they believe are related to the fracking process.

According to media reports, some people in the oil and gas industry wanted the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to handle such cases, but the court correctly upheld the basic concept of tort law, which allows people the basic right to sue for damages in district courts.

Like the Ten Commandments monument case, which rested on the clear church-state separation language of Article 2, Section 5 in the constitution, this case was another no-brainer, although it didn’t create quite the same overreaction by conservatives. Maybe some of those same conservatives have had their homes consistently rattled on an almost daily basis for a few years now.

The case specifically allows Sandra Ladra to proceed with a lawsuit against two Oklahoma energy companies. Ladra’s house was damaged and she was injured in a Nov. 5, 2011 earthquake in Prague that registered at 5.6. Scientists have been arguing for months now that the dramatic surge in earthquakes here is related to wastewater disposal wells used in fracking.

In the frackng process, water laced with chemicals is injected by high pressure underground to create fissures in rock formations. These fissures release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected back into the ground. These injection wells and the wastewater process are what scientists say are causing the dramatic surge in earthquakes.

The decision, as I mentioned, is an important one. It’s highly unlikely oil and gas companies will want to take responsibility for the earthquakes, which could lead to damage claim payouts. But Ladra’s case and perhaps future class action lawsuits could put pressure on energy companies to do more to try to prevent earthquakes because it threatens their bottom line.

Oklahoma has seen a tremendous surge in felt earthquakes, from just a few a year to hundreds of 3.0-magnitude or above. It’s not unusual these days in central Oklahoma to feel several earthquakes in one day. Oklahoma now leads the contiguous United States, including California, in 3.0 or above earthquakes. The spike in earthquakes has paralleled the horizontal well and fracking boom here.

The earthquakes in central Oklahoma have concerned many homeowners who are worried the constant shaking of their homes could lead to damage to their foundations, cracks in brick walls, the destruction of fireplaces or other structural problems. Many people seem concerned as well that the area could experience a larger earthquake, say in the 6.0 or above range, centered near a heavily populated area that could lead to injuries or even deaths.

It’s quite possible that lawsuits are the best last resort at this point unless the oil and gas industry takes responsibility. The problem is, of course, documenting building damage and determining if it came from earthquakes or not. That can be difficult unless the damage comes from a larger quake rather than a series of smaller ones.

There remains, as well, the question of home values in central Oklahoma and the impact of the earthquake problem on them. I anxiously sat through four or five earthquakes in my house that came in a series a couple of weeks ago. One was a 4.0-magnitude. That’s become normal here, and it certainly can’t help increase home values.

A lot of the earthquakes strike near Edmond, an extremely conservative suburban city of some 87,000 people and one of the wealthiest in the state. This pits fiscal Republicans and social conservative Republicans against the GOP rhetoric of “drill, baby, drill” or “American energy independence.”

Unless there’s a major decrease in seismic activity before the 2016 general election, the earthquake issue here is sure to be one of the election’s most contentious issues. Will conservatives, worried about their homes, join with environmentalists to elect politicians who will stand up to the oil and gas industry? Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But a major earthquake could change all that in just a few seconds.

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