Energy

Selective Reporting

Image of Harold Hamm

It’s hypocritical and telling that The Oklahoman isn’t demanding the release of the divorce trial records of billionaire energy tycoon Harold Hamm, the chief executive officer of Oklahoma City’s Continental Resources.

As you will recall, The Oklahoman several months ago launched a full-fledged legal and political attack on Oklahoma City former mayoral candidate and current Ward 2 Councilor Ed Shadid to get him to release his old divorce records. He eventually capitulated after the newspaper hounded him relentlessly in an act of obvious support for Shadid’s opponent Mick Cornett in the mayoral election. The records essentially revealed information about Shadid’s long ago drug use that he had already discussed publicly. The newspaper then sensationalized the information in order to sway the election in Cornett’s favor.

The Reuters news agency—not The Oklahoman—has filed a motion to unseal the Oklahoma County divorce trial records of Hamm, 68, pictured right, and Sue Ann Hamm, 58. The trial recently ended. Oklahoma County Special Judge Howard Haralson earlier sealed most of the trial records, according to media reports, in a supposed effort to protect the business interests of Continental Resources, an energy company with a major stake in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation.

Let’s be clear: Hamm controls a large and important publicly held energy company. The dividing of assets in his divorce could potentially have a deep impact on the Oklahoma economy. He has also served as a top energy advisor for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He has lobbied openly for tax breaks for oil and gas companies on a state and national level. He is every bit as much of a public figure as Shadid.

For the record, I was opposed to the unsealing of Shadid’s divorce records because I sincerely believed they only contained older salacious personal accusations that have since been retracted. I was correct on the content of the records. I believe in open government records and overall government transparency, but The Oklahoman crusade against Shadid was unethical and unfair. The fact the newspaper won’t demand the release of Hamm’s divorce records as well proves this point further.

According to a Reuters spokesperson:

Continental Resources is one of the most important publicly traded companies in the U.S. oil industry.

The public has a right to know how its chief executive officer explains his role in the company's growth over the past two decades and whether, as a result of the Hamms' divorce, there may be a change in the shareholding structure of the company.

Sue Ann Hamm, an attorney, has worked at Continental. She and Hamm married in 1988. Hamm’s net worth is estimated at $20 billion, according to the Reuters’ motion, which makes him one of the richest people on the planet. It’s obvious that the division of assets in the divorce could affect the company and the local and state economy. The divorce, then, has important public implications. So where’s The Oklahoman?

The Oklahoman, it should be noted, is owned by yet another billionaire energy tycoon, Philip Anschutz.

To its credit, FOI Oklahoma, a state journalist group dedicated to the concept of freedom of information, has applauded Reuters’ action. The organization also supported The Oklahoman in its quest to unseal Shadid’s divorce records. A post on the FOI Oklahoma web site proclaims, “Kudos to Reuters for fighting to protect our right to public trials. Shame on Oklahoma’s news media for not doing so.”

Shame on The Oklahoman, in particular, for its latest act of blatant hypocrisy.

Inspect, Government, Inspect

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

The fact a Republican legislator in an extremely conservative state is pointing out the lack of government oversight of oil and gas wells exposes the dirty business of extracting fossil fuels.

Here’s the larger, local philosophical question right now: Can one acknowledge the positive impact of the energy industry on the Oklahoma economy while also arguing for stricter regulations and oversight protecting the environment?

State Rep. Steve Vaughan, a Republican from Ponca City, held an interim study last week on the issue of water contamination related to oil and gas wells. According to a media release, here’s what Vaughan had to say on the topic:

There are more than 22,000 producing as well as disposal wells in my area. Less than 50 percent have been tested for their mechanical integrity in the last four years, according to DEQ. I think we learned in today’s study that we could give some of our fish and wildlife guys and other agencies some power to report and shut down problematic wells. We could also give the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and Oklahoma Corporation Commission more resources to look into these wells.

There’s not a lot of GOP “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric in that extremely specific statement. Here’s the media release issued by Vaughan. Here’s a news story about the interim study.

The concern is whether oil and gas pollution is contributing to fish kills in the Salt Fork River and water well contamination in north central Oklahoma in Vaughan’s District 37.

Another pressing issue is that scientists claim wastewater disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process are responsible for the state’s earthquake emergency. The state is now experiencing more 3.0-magnitude earthquakes than California. There have been so many earthquakes that it’s literally difficult to keep track of them. As I write this, the number could change. As of July, there were 258 3.0-magnitude quakes. I use that low number only because it’s cited in this excellent National Geographic story about Oklahoma’s earthquake swarm.

The larger issue is that all this points to the need to develop cleaner, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power and hydropower. Even those energy sources don’t come without their own negative environmental impact, but there’s no doubt the extraction of fossil fuels, along with carbon emissions, continues to critically damage our planet.

Texas, Oklahoma Face Fracking Fears

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Could recent protests against the oil and gas drilling process known as fracking trickle up I-35 to Oklahoma from the north Texas city of Denton?

A group of anti-fracking protestors in Denton has forced the city council there to take their concerns seriously after a petition drive calling for a ban on the process collected about 2,000 signatures. The council recently voted 5 to 2 against issuing the fracking ban, but the fact such a vote was even taken in a Texas city—just north of Dallas—has the oil and gas industry paying attention.

Those opposed to fracking in the area argue it can create heath problems. Environmentalists have long contended that fracking leads to water contamination. Wastewater disposal wells used in the fracking process have been linked to earthquakes here in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

In the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process, chemicals and water are injected by high pressure into rock formations to release gas and oil. The wastewater from the process is then often stored in underground wastewater disposal injection wells.

In the Denton case, government officials had to weigh the rights of mineral owners in the Barnett Shale area against the health and pollution concerns of the wider public. In Oklahoma, the issue has seemingly become narrower. A dramatic surge in earthquakes over the last three years or so has been tied by scientists to disposal wells. A recent town hall in Edmond about the issue attracted several hundred people concerned about their property and safety. Some people have suggested the state place a moratorium on injection wells.

The larger point is that these protests against the fracking process are most likely to continue as the oil and gas boom continues here in Oklahoma, Texas and elsewhere. The oil and gas industry, for now, has no motivation to admit any culpability when things go wrong and no amount of scientific evidence will probably convince it to do things differently. It’s going to take coordinated grassroots protest movements like the one in Denton and the town hall in Edmond to change things.

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