This is part one in a three part series on social factors on fracking in Oklahoma
I rather distinctly remember a graduate student at Kansas State asking me about my opinion on hydraulic fracturing during my undergraduate career. He was specifically probing me for an anti-fracking stance. At the time, I was a sophomore in a state that didn’t have any fracking in it so far as I was aware and I gave him the only answer I thought was reasonable: “I don’t know enough to have an opinion.” It was an honest answer. At that time, I was only vaguely aware that it was a practice currently in use. I sort of knew that it had consequences and I sort of knew that I was supposed to hate it as someone being educated in conservation biology.
It’s humbling how an issue can precipitate out of a nebulous state into something so corporeal with a change in location. Over the summer, I moved from Manhattan, Kansas to Stillwater, Oklahoma to begin a Master’s program. Unknowingly, I had moved into a region of the country where an amalgamation of social and governmental issues had left most of the citizens in a cultural crossfire. Data and opinions on fracking were being thrust onto the stage of my academic mind at a dizzying rate. With many of my faculty advisers and fellow students paying so much attention to the social and environmental benefits and costs of fracking (many of them born in the state) the intellectual change was as drastic as breaking through a thin, distancing sheet of ice to be drenched in the mire below. Suddenly my answer from three years ago no longer felt justified but rather an inappropriate and ill-advised diversion.
But as my perspective and opinions on the problem as a relative outsider began to formulate, I found that it did not square with either of the camps in what has become a bitterly polar issue. The depth of the emotion that surrounds fracking is nigh impossible to escape on the streets and in the bars. Broaching the topic can turn a roomful of pleasant southern and mid-west types into a seething, self-consuming mob. I have seen numerous people on both sides of the issue get so heated during community meetings on fracking that they had to be escorted from the room by police. So deeply are the emotions felt that, five minutes into a pleasant conversation with a total stranger, I was all at once told that “people just need to get the fuck over fracking.” Until that point, it had been all pleasant banter. The downturn in our conversation had come when I mentioned that my work involves the effects of fracking on communities.
For much of the country, and for many other scientific editorialists, fracking has become an easy thing to demonize. It has become an issue around which environmentalists can guarantee solidarity. Two weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made official a ban on fracking in his state. It was a move that was supported by roughly half of the state’s citizens and implemented over health concerns regarding the unknown (though sometimes known) toxicity of chemicals used in the process. And while this successful ban has increased the calls from environmental quarters for more bans, the view of this displaced Kansan is a little more sobering. It’s not that I disagree with the ban per se, but the troubling implications that action would have on my new home state are impossible to ignore.
Speaking about the recent New York ban, Cuomo stated that “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great.’ Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’ ” If this is true, than the view from Oklahoma is strikingly different than the one from New York. There are many land owners in Oklahoma who see fracking as a great thing. And unlike New York, these land owners almost never see any direct benefit from the activity. In Oklahoma, land rights and mineral rights are bifurcated. So while many people in the state have super lateral wells directly under their houses and pastures, they see no financial benefit nor are companies required to get their permission. While some people do choose to lease land and water rights to companies in exchange for financial compensation, hold-outs are frequently threatened with legal action if they do not sign. While these threats are ultimately hollow, antidotal evidence suggests that they frequently work as land owners have limited knowledge and resources to know the law or hire counsel.
And yet, despite this, the presumptive majority of the state is entirely fine with this activity. Many of the country’s top energy companies, companies that frack both the Marcellus shale formation in New York and the various shale formations in Oklahoma, are headquartered in Oklahoma City. As with other states, the taxable revenue and jobs that these companies bring in is often the source of support for their presence and activities. It is estimated by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board that over a third of the Oklahoma’s Gross State Product is generated by oil and gas activities. They also estimate that the industry has created of tens of thousands of jobs. The OERB also estimates that oil and gas activities accounted for nearly one billion dollars for public funds in 2010. But these numbers are of questionable accuracy. In a move borrowed from coal companies in Appalachia, the OERB is a governmental board voluntarily funded by energy companies. It generates economic data in conjunction with a local college primarily underwritten by those same companies and then uses that data to make governing recommendations to the state legislature on how to best manage themselves. But, unfortunately, many citizens see the activities of these companies as vital, and this holds true even if the OERB’s numbers are incredibly inflated. It is impossible to acknowledge that our state and many of its public services would not be in existence if not for fracking activities.
The final factor that changes the view from that of New York is the social forces that are present in Oklahoma that seem to be lacking in New York. Bluntly put, Oklahoma is an oil state. It is an identity deeply baked into the native citizenry. The halls of the state capital building are lined with paintings and photographs that document this heritage. A large painting outside the governor’s office, depicting three Native American men gathering oil from a spring, is entitled (and I swear this is true) “The Magic of Petroleum.” To many, oil and now natural gas are a huge part of what gives Oklahoma its place in the world. Energy companies know this and run advertisements to reassure Oklahomans of their fossil fuel heritage (another tactic borrowed from coal). While there is a present and growing number of citizens and lawmakers beginning to demand more oversight and accountability, talk of an all-out ban is uncommon. If Andrew Cuomo was truthful in his statement that no one has told his that “fracking is great”, I can change that within five minutes on an Oklahoma City street.
While there are definitely people in the state who would support a New York style fracking ban, more people would say that fracking is their only good option. The majority, though, would hail it as a great thing for the state. Reasons for this opinion aside, it lends a social aspect to the puzzle of fracking in Oklahoma that complicates it beyond the relatively simple action taken in New York. This social puzzle then, is something that I want to explore in two more parts to come in the next couple of weeks because, in a state like Oklahoma, demonization of fracking is nearly impossible. The tactics that have even the slightest chance of ending fracking, then, take serious consideration, study, and discussion. We have to change the culture of our state before we will change its central economic tenets. It’s not something that I feel comfortable saying will never happen, but it is something that will not come about as simply or as cleanly as New York has proven can happen.
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