Energy

Newspaper Windmills

Windmill, Jalubí, Czech Republic on Flickr The Commons

No amount of sarcasm about “garden-variety” environmentalists from the editorial board of The Oklahoman will diminish the basic fact that global warming is real and that the planet is heading toward a catastrophe because of it.

The newspaper recently published an editorial that made fun of people concerned about the environment while celebrating the use of natural gas to produce electricity. The snarky piece begins like this:

Pity the plight of the garden-variety environmentalist. He loathes coal because it’s dirty. He’s uncomfortable with nuclear power even though it’s far cleaner than coal. And he can barely tolerate natural gas because, well, it’s a fossil fuel.

Oh, a faux pity party. I want to go. Can I bring a friend? I’m unsure how exactly “garden-variety” is supposed to be read here. Of course, it means commonplace, but I guess it’s also meant to be pejorative in some way. Still, it’s confusing. Note the gender bias as well as in “he loathes” and “he’s uncomfortable.” I guess women don’t care about the environment or the editorial writer needs some training when it comes to gender issues in writing. The overall generalization in the paragraph screams out the writing here is sophomoric and not to be trusted.

Maybe this is too much nitpicking for another goofy editorial in The Oklahoman, but the commentary was published right before it was announced that a new scientific paper shows global warming accelerated by carbon emissions is leading to a catastrophic rise in sea levels. The contrast between the two could not be greater. One mocks people and the science in which they believe. The other is a scientific approach to one of the most important issues of our time.

The paper, which was written by prominent climatologist Dr. James Hansen and several co-authors, argues that a temperature rise of 2 degree Celsius over the next 50 years could lead to sea levels ten-feet higher than they now exist because the added heat will melt ice sheets on the planet.

The paper seems unnecessarily alarmist to some people, according to media reports, but the fact remains that carbon emissions have led to a rise in greenhouse gases. This melts ice sheets on the planet and leads to rising sea levels. If the planet’s inhabitants don’t take any corrective action, the outcome could be devastating.

According to a media report about the paper, Hansen and his coauthors write, "We conclude that continued high [carbon] emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating." Imagine entire coastal communities wiped out.

Meanwhile, The Oklahoman is cheering on the fossil fuel industry. It’s one dying industry cheering on another dying industry.

Developing renewal energy sources, such as solar and wind power, with a limited environmental impact is the primary solution to the planet’s crisis. Obviously, fossil fuels, including natural gas used in power plants, are still vital and will remain so for decades, but in the larger picture they need to be replaced.

The hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom in Oklahoma and in other areas of the country has also brought with it a host of environmental problems, such as water contamination and earthquakes. Oklahoma, in particular, has been shaken relentlessly over the last few years by earthquakes scientists claim are caused by wastewater injection wells used in the fracking process. The state now leads the contiguous United States in the number of earthquakes of 3.0-magnitude or above.

The 5.6-magnitude 2011 earthquake near Prague caused significant damage, and many property owners are concerned about the impact on their homes and buildings from the almost daily earthquakes the state now experiences. On Monday, 4.4-magnitude and 4.0 magnitude quakes rattled north-central Oklahoma near Cherokee. The Stillwater City Council has even passed new regulations about setbacks and noise levels of fracking operations in its jurisdiction.

While all this is going on, The Oklahoman chooses the snarky road while lauding the energy industry. It should be noted Philip Anschutz, the Colorado billionaire who made his money in the drilling business, currently owns the paper. But the newspaper business is in serious decline. How long before he sells it or the newspaper stops publishing a hard copy, another waste of the planet’s resources? Obviously, the newspaper intentionally alienates many potential “garden-variety” readers.

After outlining the ways in which natural gas is leading to a decline in coal use, the editorial ends with a reference to the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes:

Most of these aren’t on the agenda of our garden-variety environmentalist. Let him tilt at his windmills. We’ll celebrate the gas milestone.

This is what passes for reasoned, compensated written insight in Oklahoma these days. The newspaper’s executives want us to read this and think it’s wise and pertinent commentary and then subscribe to its dying, sometimes offensive and narrow-minded publication. The editorial is simply silly, although we could use more windmills (i.e., wind turbines) these days.

We actually don’t need The Oklahoman in its present form anymore. It’s counter productive for an informed local culture. We DO need to become better stewards of our planet and less worried about lining the pockets of rich oil and gas executives here. That’s not fighting imaginary enemies. It’s just common sense.

Stillwater Takes Action

Fracking Rig on Flickr The Commons

The Stillwater City Council unanimously approved new regulations Monday protecting its citizens from the residual effect of oil and gas drilling in its jurisdiction.

Guess what? The oil and gas industry doesn’t like it.

But here’s the dilemma: The hydraulic fracturing or fracking boom in this country has raised both quality of life and environmental issues, ranging from loud operational noise levels to more significant issues, such as a dramatic surge in earthquakes. People in local communities, such as Stillwater, are starting to speak up and take action.

Last year, for example, voters in Denton, TX actually approved an outright ban on fracking in its city limits. When a city in Texas bans oil and gas activity, the issue takes on powerful significance in our culture.

The Stillwater City Council voted Monday to regulate noise levels and establish appropriate distances between homes and buildings from oil and gas operations. In response to the new ordinance, an official with the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association said, “It’s essentially a ban.”

Under a Senate bill passed by the Oklahoma Legislature last session, cities are forbidden to ban oil and gas operations in their jurisdiction, but they can regulate certain elements of the process. Thus, the action in Stillwater Monday could generate a legal showdown of some manner. The Senate bill establishes the Oklahoma Corporation Commission as the main regulating body for the oil and gas industry in the state.

Other municipalities in the state will almost certainly carefully scrutinize the backlash of Stillwater’s action.

Conservative legislators here find themselves in the difficult position of wanting to “drill, baby, drill” to create American energy independence while denying people local control over their communities. Local control is often touted as a bedrock conservative principle. This contradiction, along with the surge of earthquakes here, as I’ve written before, has the potential to become an important political issue in the 2016 general election.

The obvious question is why the oil and gas industry won’t just limit drilling operations to less sparsely populated areas and avoid this type of political friction. The obvious answer is probably that it simply doesn’t matter to the industry, which has a powerful political lobby and undoubtedly has enough money to proceed with legal actions.

In other news, dangerously high levels of radiation have been found in a creek in Pennsylvania, and one university biologist said, “It's highly suggestive that it may be due to drilling operations, or at least the wastewater.” The oil and gas industry has denied it. The creek leads into a river, which is used for an area water supply. Eventually, the tainted water could even make it into the Pittsburgh water supply, according to a media report.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, earthquakes that scientists have attributed to wastewater injection wells used in the fracking process continue to rumble the state. A 4.4-magnitude earthquake followed shortly afterwards by a 4.0-magnitude temblor struck near Cherokee in northern Oklahoma Monday.

The growing surge of earthquakes in Oklahoma has become a major crisis. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, according to media reports, just recently expanded the number of injection wells by more than 200 that face new restrictions.

But is it enough? Many people concerned about their homes and property don’t think so. It’s time to speak up. The Stillwater City Council has fortunately helped to accelerate the debate.

State Law Now Prohibits City Fracking Bans

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

The new law prohibiting cities from banning fracking within their jurisdictions violates the conservative ideology of promoting local government control and benefits oil and gas companies over the interests of homeowners and other residents.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed Senate Bill 809 into law Friday. It’s a bill that ensures oil and gas companies can drill within the limits of a municipality even if the people who live in that municipality don’t want them to do so. It other words, it takes away the right of individual citizens to protect their quality of life and personal welfare.

The bill came after the city of Denton, Texas voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in their city last year and as some people in Stillwater apparently contemplated a ban there. It was a preemptive strike by a Republican-dominated state legislature and government, but it hardly reflects the conservative mantra of individual determination.

In a news release, Fallin said the bill reaffirms “the Corporation Commission as the sole regulator of Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry,” noting the bill “prohibits municipalities from issuing moratoriums or bans on drilling while preserving their ability to adopt reasonable ordinances, rules and regulations concerning traffic issues, noise, fencing requirements and placing of drilling rigs.”

The basic official argument is that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission provides a needed consistency when it comes to drilling regulations that individual cities can’t provide. In her release, Fallin even mentioned how the commission was looking into the link between wastewater injection wells used in the fracking process and the dramatic surge in seismic activity here.

But that won’t mean much to homeowners suffering through the noise and traffic of a nearby fracking rig.

It might well be true that smaller cities lack a certain expertise in the engineering underlying the fracking process and its impact on the surrounding environment, but that simply doesn’t apply to a university city, such as Stillwater, or, say, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman. City officials and staff in those places either possess the knowledge or know where to seek the knowledge about fracking.

Centralizing regulations is problematic as well. An oil and gas company, for example, recently submitted a plan to frack near Lake Hefner, one of Oklahoma City’s main water supplies. The company withdrew the proposal because of a public outcry. This new law would seemingly make it more difficult to stop such projects under this philosophy of centralization.

Conservatives often cite “local control” and “individual rights” as values they support and bemoan what they see as a centralized, overreaching federal government. This bill contradicts those positions. If people in a city want to retain a certain quality of life and ban fracking near their homes, then let them do so. There remain plenty of places to frack for gas in this country.

As the country is discovering, so-called energy independence comes at a high cost, which includes earthquakes here and, as some environmentalists have long argued, water pollution. While the energy industry is vital to the state’s economy, there’s a breaking point in which its negative environmental impact outweighs the benefits. I think people are waking up to this basic point, especially in places like Texas and Oklahoma, which have experienced a fracking boom in recent years.

In the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking process, water laced with chemicals is injected by high pressure into underground rock formations that create fissures releasing gas and oil. The wastewater from that process is then injected again by high pressure into underground storage wells. Scientists now believe that it’s the wastewater injection well process that is triggering the surge in earthquakes here. Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in 2014 in the number of earthquakes registering 3.0 magnitude or higher.

The fracking boom here and elsewhere, often draped in the patriotic and geo-political language of “energy independence,” as I’ve mentioned, and “freedom” from the Middle East, is used by oil and gas companies to push against regulations. But the real cost of this country’s fracking boom is now becoming clear, and it’s happening, of course, on the local level where the environmental evidence mounts.

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