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Oklahomans turn ‘Oilfield Prayer Day’ into a protest against Big Oil

Demonstrators gather in front of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s building in Oklahoma City on October 13. (KOCO)

“Pipelines are genocide!” and “Keep the frack out of my water” were just a few of the signs held by protesters at a rally in Oklahoma City on Friday. Standing outside the building that houses the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, protesters rallied for nearly two hours to demand that the public utilities commission ban fracking and limit the damage of the fossil fuel industry.

The rally was set up to coincide with the one year anniversary of “Oilfield Prayer Day,” a state-sanctioned event proclaimed by Gov. Mary Fallin in an effort to recognize, as she explained it, “the incredible economic, community and faith-based impact demonstrated across the state by oil and natural gas companies.” Last year’s celebration involved a prayer breakfast in Oklahoma City with more than 400 people in attendance, including Gov. Fallin, to support an industry suffering from low prices and mass layoffs.

Indigenous people and other local residents at Friday’s gathering said they weren’t protesting prayer itself, but rather the harmful impacts of the fossil fuel industry. One such impact has been measured regularly by the state government itself. In 2010, the Oklahoma Geological Survey reported 41 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3 or greater in center and north-central Oklahoma. Five years later, the same region experienced 903 such earthquakes in a single year. According to the survey, they were “very likely triggered by the injection of produced water in [wastewater] disposal wells” used by oil and gas firms.

In addition to earthquakes, Oklahomans are regularly faced with oil and gas leaks. A few years ago, Oklahoma was second in the country for most spills. The state’s drinking water is at risk of contamination from fracking, and polluted ecosystems can lead to dead wildlife. The latter issue led the Ponca tribe, an indigenous group near Ponca City, Oklahoma, to pass a moratorium on any future fossil fuel work near their lands.

“Tribal sovereignty is also being ignored for the sake of Big Oil,” said Ashley Nicole McCray, a member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. “The Pawnee nation is one example of a tribe that has banned this sort of resource extraction from taking place on their lands, but this has been ignored by the state of Oklahoma. Last year, the Pawnee nation was hit hard by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that destroyed much of the community.”

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, or OCC, is a three-person board that regulates industries such as oil and gas. The commission, as McCray noted, possesses “scientific information that shows the direct correlation between fracking and earthquakes,” yet are not opposed to the presence of fracking companies.

“We want to not only draw attention to the purpose of the OCC for Oklahomans who were unaware of their purpose prior to this day, but also demand that they ban fracking statewide,” she said.

Meanwhile, Casey Holcomb, a community organizer from Norman, Oklahoma, noted the importance of pressuring officials who can change the state’s oil and gas policy.

“We’re really tired of the earthquakes. We’re tired of the negligence of the industry. We’re tired of [oil and gas companies] bankrupting our state,” Holcomb said.

He then pointed out the connection between the state’s budget crisis and gross production taxes paid by the industry. The state’s gross production tax used to be 7 percent — until, in 2015, lawmakers temporarily lowered it to 2 percent, essentially as a tax cut for companies. Yet, some smaller producers actually favor a return to the old rate amid the state’s monetary shortfall.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation if the horizontal drillers paid their fair share,” Holcomb said. “But they’re not, and they’re being subsidized by the taxpayers of Oklahoma. As a result, we have schools that are only open four days a week because they can’t afford to pay the salaries of the teachers and overhead costs of the schools.”

Oklahoma residents face additional barriers in curtailing the power of the oil and gas industry. For example, in 2015, some lawmakers drafted a bill barring local governments from banning fracking, while also establishing the OCC as the only entity allowed to regulate oil and gas firms. After lawmakers voted in favor of the measure, Gov. Fallin signed it into law.

“The single biggest issue that we are trying to convey to Oklahomans is that this is not an anti-fossil fuel movement,” said Jonathan Bridgwater, the director of Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter. “This is a pro-Oklahoma movement.”

Activists in the state are emphasizing the failure of Oklahoma’s politicians to advocate an economic system that does not rely on fossil fuels and instead focuses on other industries such as renewable energy.

“To sum it up, we completely see the state government of Oklahoma heading down a track that’s going to turn Oklahoma into the next West Virginia, rather than turn it into, say, Texas or California,” Bridgwater said.

Organizers are determined to pressure officials into changing their relationship with fossil fuel companies despite the crackdown they continue to face. Earlier this year, their efforts against the Diamond pipeline — a nearly $900 million interstate venture — were deemed “domestic terrorist threats” by the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, officials implemented a law on May 3 that penalizes citizens who protest “critical infrastructure,” which are mainly oil and gas facilities.

“The situation in Oklahoma is tense to say the least,” McCray explained. “Fighting against Big Oil — which has had a huge hold over Oklahoma since the illegal inception of this so-called state — is difficult for everyone, especially indigenous people.”

Nicole wants the state to acknowledge and respect the federally-recognized tribes in Oklahoma. She recalled how former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, “repeatedly ignored tribal sovereignty to the benefit of Big Oil and the detriment of the people of the state of Oklahoma.”

With Pruitt now heading the Environmental Protection Agency, McCray said, “It is vital that the rest of the nation look back to Oklahoma and see how our path has unfolded. What we have endured and what we continue to experience is a mere sample of what the rest of the nation is in for if something drastic doesn’t happen now.”

For now, Oklahoma activists are preparing and training for future actions. Right after the rally, some organizers headed nearly 20 miles east of Oklahoma City to attend the grand opening of the Good Hearted Peoples Camp, where residents are sharing strategies and experiences, while also getting some rest before continuing their actions against fossil fuels.