The Oklahoman

Ignorant Fallacies

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The Oklahoman published such an asinine editorial about the energy industry Monday that it deserves as much rebuttal as reasonable people can muster.

The editorial, titled “Still plenty of ignorance about the U.S. energy industry,” is a glaring example of a weak argument that completely ignores or distorts competing claims while omitting obvious and crucial facts. It’s the usual fare offered up by The Oklahoman, but this an extreme example.

The editorial’s sophomoric premise, supported by extremely weak evidence, is that people remain ignorant about where fossil fuels, such as natural gas, actually come from and how they are produced and they just don’t understand how important hydraulic facturing drilling or fracking is to energy independence. Consequently, we must endure the editorial’s tortuous logic, such as this:

Attitudes about energy continue to be a concern and, unfortunately, ignorance is still in evidence. We’re far removed from the time when some folks thought gasoline came out of the ground from a well below the filling station — somehow being refined along the way.

But are we really that far from such ignorance? Perhaps not.

Did anyone at anytime actually believe that “gasoline came out of the ground from a well below the filling station . . .”? Who? When? Is that just a given? How many people? Even if this is true the time period in which it occurred is important. Did it occur at the beginning of the automobile age when cars and horse buggies shared the road?

And, come on, even if we grant that general anecdote is really true we aren’t “that far from such ignorance” just because a survey shows some people don’t know the term hydraulic fracturing or that some people are opposed to fracking. The general “ignorance” anecdote—even if it's true on some level—and the survey information don’t equate. It’s a textbook example of a false comparison.

But that’s just the typical silly stuff upon which The Oklahoman constructs its opinion page on a daily basis. It’s the editorial’s omissions that really flaw the argument. The editorial points out that fracking has paved the way for U.S. energy independence and hints how this is good for the geopolitical scene. But it never mentions the environmental impact of fracking.

To be fair, the editorial does conclude, “For some of them [meaning the ignorant people], the only march that matters is a demonstration to stop fracking.” Yet it doesn’t outline why there is a “demonstration to stop fracking.” In essence, then, the editorial implicitly and disingenuously makes the argument that people who care about the environment are ignorant people along the lines of people who once thought “gasoline came out of the ground from a well below the filling station . . .”. It’s ridiculous.

First, many, if not most, people who are concerned the fracking process is contaminating our water supplies and causing earthquakes are fully aware of the continued importance of fossil fuels in our daily lives. That, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to develop renewable and cleaner energy, or that energy companies shouldn’t face stringent environmental regulations when they frack. This is without even considering the impact of manmade carbon emissions on global warming.

Here’s the basic truthful story The Oklahoman distorts: The fracking drilling technique has created a boom in natural gas production in this country. Some people throughout the country where fracking occurs have taken note of its detrimental environmental impact and have protested in varying degrees.

A town hall this summer in Edmond about the state’s earthquake emergency, which scientists argue is related to disposal wells used in the fracking process attracted “several hundred people.” These are the people The Oklahoman thinks are ignorant. And I guess they are ignorant if they support the biased, uncaring newspaper, now owned by a Colorado billionaire, Philip Anschutz, who made his money in the energy business.

But I prefer to see these people deemed ignoramuses by The Oklahoman as intelligent, concerned citizens waking up to what’s happening around them when it comes to fracking and its link to our earthquake emergency and, hopefully, realizing the state’s largest newspaper editorial page could care less about their safety or property.

Whither Logic? Whither Fairness?

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The Oklahoman has long supported just about anything the oil and gas industry does in the state and elsewhere, and two of its recent commentaries show just how much its cloying, crude genuflection has crossed sensible boundaries.

Last Tuesday, the newspaper’s NewsOK.com site published an editorial arguing, “Birds are being killed by the thousands at solar and wind power projects.” Thus, the argument goes, producing wind and solar power is just as, if not more, environmentally destructive as oil and gas drilling, something the Environmental Protection Agency and President Barack Obama just don’t get.

The editorial, titled “On energy front, one standard needed for wildlife protection,” essentially wants its readers to feel sorry for big energy companies, mentioning, “The Obama administration . . . has delayed approval of a Canada-U.S. pipeline project for years.” Meanwhile, listen up, these terrible wind farms and solar plants are killing birds.

Here are a couple of responses to this nonsense:

First, let’s be clear that wind and solar power are renewable energy sources while oil and gas are finite even despite the recent fracking boom. It only stands to reason that the development of renewable sources should be granted some leeway and time to determine its initial impact on the environment. Yes, wind turbines and solar plants can and do kill birds, but are there ways to remedy this? The answer is worthy of contemplation and study, and I’m sure that’s happening. The answer absolutely IS NOT eliminating oil and gas drilling regulations. The Oklahoman editorial page is constantly making what I call “baby-fit arguments.” This baby argument—imagine a small child throwing a fit in the middle of the living room—goes like this: Wind and solar power gets to kill little birdies. Why can’t oil and gas wells kill birdies, too. Want to kill birdies. Want to kill birdies. Want to kill birdies.” It’s ridiculous. The Oklahoman editorial page needs a timeout.

Second, speaking of killing birds, some scientists estimate that about 800,000 birds were killed by the 2010 BP-operated oil rig explosion and resulting spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion also killed eleven people and had a devastating impact on the Louisiana economy. The Oklahoman doesn’t mention the BP disaster in its editorial.

Another editorial published Sunday—“Whither the U.S. energy boom? Answer may lie in the halls of government”—extoled the fracking boom in Oklahoma, Texas and North Dakota, noting, “The last thing Oklahoma’s economy needs is depressed energy prices.” The editorial also whines “. . . but the beat will go on to demonize the one thing that’s increasing domestic supply and defusing the potential of international crises to create panic in the marketplace.” Specifically, it mentions a proposal to ban fracking in the Denton, Texas city limits while vaguely referencing a Colorado anti-fracking initiative.

So the newspaper’s argument is this: Not only do we basically need higher gasoline prices and high natural gas prices to support the oil and gas industry here, but those people who are against fracking are ruining everything, which is bad, bad, bad for the world. Meanwhile, scientists argue that wastewater disposal wells used in the fracking process are to blame for the earthquake emergency the state now faces, and environmentalists continue to claim fracking leads to water contamination. There is no mention of these important factors in the editorial or anything about the relationship between global warming and carbon. It’s just a blanket endorsement of fracking and how important it is to geopolitics, which is immensely debatable.

The Oklahoman, operated for decades by the ultra-conservative Gaylord family, is now owned by Philip Anschutz, the Colorado billionaire who made his money in the energy business. So it’s no wonder the newspaper is a radical defender of the oil and gas industry. The newspaper simply can’t be trusted to say anything remotely fair about the oil and gas industry on its editorial page.

I’ve said this for years: We live in the Fossil Fuel Age, which will end and become a blip in history if it doesn’t lead to the destruction of the planet. Once the last drop of oil is squeezed from the earth here in Oklahoma, the big energy companies and the ultra-rich millionaires and billionaires who operated them will be gone.

No one reading this will probably be alive when the Fossil Fuel Age ends, but it's only going to become increasingly obvious in the years to come that renewable energy sources remain the answer to our survival.

Seismic Stalemate

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Recent stories on NewsOK.com dissecting the dramatic surge in earthquakes here and its possible connection to oil and gas drilling activities are probably the most thorough local look at the issue so far.

The stories were primarily written by Adam Wilmoth, the energy editor of The Oklahoman, which operates the NewsOK.com site. In his main report, Wilmoth presents the analysis of experts from academia and the oil and gas industry and outlines the history of earthquakes here. The accompanying graphics are helpful as well.

Wilmoth puts the earthquake surge in this perspective:

The number of earthquakes measuring magnitude 3.0 or greater has jumped from an average of less than five a year to about 40 a year for the past five years and more than 200 so far in 2014, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Here’s the anchor article. It’s worth reading if you’ve ever experienced an earthquake here and then were left wondering if the next one would literally bring the house down.

I do believe, however, the main story relies too heavily on the claims of people who work in the oil and gas industry. Certainly, executives at oil and gas companies here have a vested financial interest in arguing the recent surge in seismic activity is a natural phenomenon. The story never really directly points out that conflict of interest in blunt enough terms for me.

Oklahoma’s surge in earthquakes, according to scientists outside of the oil and gas industry, is at least partially due to water disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. In the fracking process, wastewater is eventually injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Scientists believe it’s that process that triggers earthquakes along the state’s fault lines. Although disposal wells have long been used in the oil and gas industry, they have grown in number because of the recent boom in fracking in the state. There are currently 12,000 injection wells in Oklahoma, according to one of the recent NewsOK.com articles.

I also believe an editorial in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, which followed Wilmoth’s reports, completely distorted the issue. The editorial makes the big italicized point, “We have shaken this way before. The point seems to be this: Don’t blame the oil and gas industry for earthquakes in Oklahoma. This went on in the 1950s, too.

Yet one local scientist, Austin Holland, who works for the Oklahoma Geological Survey clearly claims in an earlier article on NewsOK.com:

There are number of times in the historic past before we had seismic monitoring that we had seismicity clusters, but none of these upticks in seismic activity even come close to comparing to what we see today.

I respect the work they are doing, but certainly feel that it is not the whole story.

“They” are people like Glen Brown, who works as a vice president for geology at local energy company Continental Resources. Brown’s claim is that the recent surge in earthquakes here was similar to a surge in the 1950s, which included a 5.5-magnitude quake in El Reno.

The main conundrum is that available scientific techniques might not be able to ever conclusively show beyond a shadow of a doubt that disposal wells are responsible for the earthquake surge. This is compounded by the fact that the oil and gas industry has no compelling reason to accept any liability for the increase in seismic activity.

It’s a seismic stalemate that could lead to property damage and even human casualties if a large earthquake hits the state.

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