Environmental Lesson


If anyone here is still under the illusion that energy companies will always automatically do the right thing when it comes to the environment, look no further than the massive, historic $5.5 billion cleanup settlement arising from actions by Oklahoma’s former Kerr-McGee Corporation.

The settlement was announced last Thursday by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the settlement, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, which purchased Kerr-McGee in 2006, would pay the massive cleanup amount to restore polluted sites dating back to 1928. It’s the largest pollution cleanup settlement ever.

Before Kerr-McGee was sold in 2006, according to the DOJ, it spun off the polluted assets into a company called Tronox and that company was left insolvent and couldn’t afford the cleanup. One U.S. Attorney called it a “corporate shell game,” designed to evade responsibility for the pollution, which includes uranium mines in New Mexico and Arizona.

Kerr-McGee was also the focus of legal and media scrutiny after state resident Karen Silkwood died in 1974. Silkwood worked at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication site near Crescent. Silkwood, a labor union activist, was allegedly contaminated by the plutonium manufactured at the plant. She died in a mysterious car accident, and a movie starring Meryl Streep and Cher about her life was released in 1983.

Kerr-McGee, once located in downtown Oklahoma City, was lauded in this brainwashing newspaper article published in The Oklahoman in 1999. The article, which never mentions the Silkwood saga or the company’s pollution legacy, begins, “World-class, generous, involved, leaders, company with a heart - words used by Oklahoma City officials and citizens to describe one of their most respected neighbors, Kerr-McGee Corp.” A few years later after this glowing tribute, the “world-class” company was sold to Anadarko, based in Texas.

A larger lesson here is that the Kerr-McGee case gives us every reason to reasonably suspect that energy companies are quite capable of doing massive harm to the environment while trying to evade responsibility for it. That suspicion is why we need strict state and federal regulations governing their operations and an intense focus on developing cleaner, renewable energy sources.

The anti-EPA sentiment in this state, fueled by conservative political dogma and The Oklahoman, is widely misplaced and a major historical error.

Oklahoma is currently experiencing a boom in natural gas production because of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling process tied to water pollution and now earthquakes. Does the $5.5 billion settlement send a clear enough message to oil and gas companies here or will history repeat itself once again?

The Usual Drill

Image of T.W. Shannon

Let’s be clear that House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s insistence the state continue to give costly taxpayer handouts to the oil and gas industry as the state faces budget constraints could have a major detrimental effect on the overall quality of life here.

Education funding has declined to what can only be perceived as catastrophic levels since 2008. The state’s prisons are dangerously understaffed. Many state workers have gone without raises for seven years. There are myriad of mental health initiatives that need to be implemented on the state level.

But Shannon, a Lawton Republican, wants to make permanent $175 million in tax breaks for horizontal oil and gas drilling. The tax credits are set to expire in 2015. According to the Tulsa World, Shannon recently said, “Some have suggested we should raise this tax or allow it to expire in order to bring more money into the general fund and grow government. I don't believe in the tax-more, spend-more approach.”

This type of conservative reasoning defies logic primarily because it’s merely an ideological statement and sloganeering. But it also ignores a basic reality: Oil and gas companies will drill here no matter what. That’s a given, and when there’s no more fossil fuels to suck out of the ground in Oklahoma, these companies will leave the state and never return, leaving only earthquakes and environmental damage in their wake.

Of course, Shannon has other motivations to argue his case. Oil and gas interests, including the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association and Chesapeake Energy, have been major contributors to his campaign funding. Shannon is up for reelection this year.

Meanwhile, Shannon will continue to push for income tax cuts next session, according to media reports, even though revenue predictions are not getting met on a monthly basis. The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently threw out last year’s tax cut bill because it violated the state’s constitutional single-subject rule for legislation.

Tax breaks for oil and gas companies along with stagnant or lowered funding for education. This conservative model of governance ultimately only creates more socioeconomic problems for the state. It’s really a no-brainer.

Under Republican dominance, Oklahoma has quickly become a shining example of failed conservative ideology. Despite some state leaders’ rosy rhetoric about the state’s economic development, Oklahoma faces chronic problems in many areas, precipitated by underfunding for education, health issues and corrections. Costly and unneeded tax breaks for oil and gas companies only make it worse.

Have Injection Wells Contributed To Earthquake Swarm?

Image of wind turbines

The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that the large rise in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma in recent years might be partly attributed to the wastewater disposal methods used in oil and gas drilling techniques.

In a statement released recently, the USGS noted there were one to three earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or more from 1975 to 2008. Since that time, the state has averaged 40 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitudes or more on an annual basis, according to the USGS, which has labeled the increase a “swarm.”

This information has important implications for Oklahomans in terms of personal safety and building codes. Is it only a matter of time before a major earthquake hits Oklahoma and does major damage?

According to the USGS statement, “the analysis suggests that a contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes triggers may be from activities such as wastewater disposal--a phenomenon known as injection-induced seismicity.”

Injection wells for wastewater are part of the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” drilling process. The wastewater from the fracking process and other drilling methods is injected into the ground, which could cause instability and stresses in rock layers. Studies in recent years have suggested a link between injection wells and earthquakes here and elsewhere in the world. Fracking has also been blamed for water contamination in some areas by environmental activists.

Should oil and gas companies be held accountable for the increase in seismic activity? Oil and gas companies have contributed much to the Oklahoma economy for decades, but could their drilling techniques lead to major destruction here? Will the end of the fossil fuel era be marked by damaging earthquakes?

These are not simply hyperbolic questions, and the mounting evidence suggests they need to be discussed.

The USGS noted that Oklahoma has always been prone to earthquakes, but “the increased hazard has important implications for residents and businesses in the area.” The USGS pointed to the 5.6 magnitude earthquake near Prague in 2011, and recent earthquakes just east of Oklahoma City that measured 4.2 and 4.4. There were several earthquakes in central Oklahoma on Saturday and at least one on Sunday. I think it’s fair to argue that the large increase in earthquakes is an alarming issue here in Oklahoma, and it’s probably not getting enough attention. Will it take a major earthquake to wake up people?

As I mentioned, there is now a growing number of studies that suggest injection wells and fracking can be tied to an increase in earthquakes. If the oil and gas industry here and elsewhere will not respond to this obvious dilemma with solutions, then the state and federal government should step in to protect people and their property.

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