Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Coburn threatens filibuster on "open spaces" issue

By John Sutter

A number of state's have voted recently to increase money for open spaces, or land that's not eaten up by development. Environmentalists see a number of benefits to setting land aside--it lets biodiversity thrive, cleans groundwater and gives people a place to go outside of suburbia.

Opponents say open spaces are either a detriment to the economy or an example of the government taking too much control of how people use land.

In an editorial today, the New York Times, says the recent state votes amount to a rebuke of the Bush Administration's decision not to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which manages open spaces.

Sen. Harry Reid had wanted to bring up the open-spaces issue for debate at the end of this congressional session. According to the Times, Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, brought that move to a halt--at least until next session.

From the NYT editorial:

We had hoped that Congress would approve the legislation in the current lame-duck session. On Monday, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, withdrew it from the calendar after Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, threatened to filibuster the bill. Mr. Coburn called it a waste of money and an unnecessary expansion of federal control over public lands.

Mr. Reid said the Senate needed to focus on the economic crisis, but he promised to bring the measure up for immediate action early next year.

Old business tends to get lost in the early days of a new Congress, especially when there is a new administration. Come January, we will remind Mr. Reid of his promise and of the voters’ clear commitment to preserving open spaces.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Olympic swimmer weighs in on oceans/Oklahoma

By John Sutter

In an interview with MSNBC, Olympic gold medalist and ocean advocate Aaron Peirsol name-drops Oklahoma as he plugs the idea that all of the world's waters are connected. While the U.S. swimmer probably spends most of his time in a chlorinated pool, he's campaigning for all of us to do our part to protect the world's oceans--even if you live super-far from them.

Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Q: What needs to happen to clean them up? What can the average person do to help?

A: I believe it's a matter of collective involvement. What I said about the little things making a big difference; I believe that to be very true. I’m a part of a program called Toyota’s Engines of Change Program. The message is that anyone can make a difference in their community or for whatever cause they feel strongly about. Everyone can be an Engine of Change.

For me, I work with Oceana to help save the oceans. But anyone can help. The canvas bags at the grocery market; the buying of sustainable fish at the market; and even the knowledge that every river does lead to an ocean. It really is the easy things that can add up to be a lot. They don't cost a lot of money, just a little time, and a willingness to make a change. It doesn't matter that you live in Oklahoma or Iowa; everyone has a profound effect on the ocean, and the environment in general. (emphasis added) Recycling seems easy enough, but here in Austin we only just received recycling bins large enough to take all of our recyclables. There is still a long way to go.

Bode named head of national wind group

By John Sutter

Former Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode has been named chief executive officer of the American Wind Energy Association.

The Republican had stepped down from her spot on the corporation commission to head up the American Skies Foundation. She will leave that position to become head of the national wind-power group on Jan. 2.

In a former life, Bode served for seven years as the president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Read more here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Chesapeake won't reveal "fracing" forumla

By John Sutter

To get natural gas out of the ground, natural gas companies like Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy inject millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth. This process, called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracing," dislodges natural gas so that the company can extract it and sell it to heat homes and make electricity.

The problem is that most natural gas companies won't say what they're injecting into the ground. An investigation by ProPublica, a non-profit journalism group, found that many of the chemicals used in fracing could contaminate groundwater. The federal government lists many as toxic, and in some instances the chemicals make the gas wells explosive. The EPA wrote a 2004 study saying the process is safe. But new criticisms of fracing are coming to the surface.

In its story, which you can read here, ProPublica finds that many natural gas companies won't reveal their recipes for these chemical and water injections. In most states, regulations don't require them to. Here's an excerpt from the story that concerns Chesapeake Energy's recipe:

"It is like Coke protecting its syrup formula for many of these service companies," said Scott Rotruck, vice president of corporate development at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s largest gas driller, which has been asked by New York State regulators to disclose the chemicals it uses.

The issue is becoming more important as natural gas is talked about as a solution to the country's energy needs. Natural gas is cleaner burning than coal, which is the United States' most abundant energy source. It's also second in availability. But it appears that its extraction may come with environmental costs you don't hear talked about quiiiite as much as the Pickens Plan.

Oklahoma recycling pledges

By John Sutter

Recycle something and then get some more stuff for free (which you can recycle later, I suppose).

That's pretty much the idea behind the Oklahoma Recycling Association's annual recycling drive, which continues through Nov. 25.

Make a recycling pledge on their Web site. Choices include buying recycled-content products, recycling more often and volunteering with recycling groups. I might choose the "other" category. I need to get back to work on the compost bin. It's basically an unchanging heap of trash at the moment. Need to get those microbes in gear.

Those who enter have a chance to win one of several prizes, including an electric riding lawnmower and bicycles.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Water and climate change: a study comes to Oklahoma

[photo: Western Oklahoma: where there's circa no water ... Sorry, I don't have a picture of Lake Altus...]

By John Sutter

As the world gets warmer, water resources are sure to get weirder. Wet areas are expected to get wetter, and dry areas are supposed to get drier as humans continue to release huge amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Now, a state and federal agency want to find out what climate change will do to Oklahoma's already stretched water resources. The state Water Resources Board and a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior announced yesterday a $100,000 study looking at changes to water resources in two watersheds -- one in Oklahoma and one in Texas.

The Oklahoma side of the study will focus on an area that includes Lake Altus, which is a major source of water used for irrigating cotton crops in the southern part of the state. The study will look at water availability and also the resource's impact on local ecology.

The study comes at a turbulent time for water law in Oklahoma. The state is in the process of writing a new water policy which will govern how Oklahomans use water for the next 50 years. The results of the study, to be finished by 2010, will be incorporated into the new water plan, officials said in a news release.

If you're interested, here's a schedule of upcoming water plan meetings. The process--which includes a bunch of community-level meetings in all corners of the state--is expected to be finished by 2011.

IN NATIONAL water news, the New York Times' blog Dot Earth notes that the Center for Biological Diversity may soon sue to force the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists are coming at carbon regulation from all angles--often trying to use existing environmental regulations, like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, as reasons for the EPA to clamp down on emissions of heat-trapping gases. Using the Clean Water Act to this end would be new, though. The group may claim that the EPA must regulate carbon dioxide because it is making the oceans acidic, which is killing marine life.

In the blog, a White House spokesperson said such a move would create a "regulatory train wreck." The Bush Administration has opposed using existing environmental laws as reason to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

C.B. Podcast: American Indians and sense of place

By John Sutter

MIAMI, OK--Sometimes I think it's hard for transient people in urban areas, like me, to understand how connected someone can be to a particular patch of land. A reporter at the Navajo Times recently explained this connection to me as if the land were an heirloom. If you lose it, you can never replace it with something that would have the same meaning, even if it looks the same, she said.

The deep connections some American Indians feel for their environment was the focus of a recent conversation I had with Paul Barton, who works for the Eastern Shawnee Tribe in far northeastern Oklahoma. He told me about how American Indian people in northeast Oklahoma are worried that pollution from the lead and zinc mines at Tar Creek is altering their very way of existence. Some of the tribal ceremonies are changing partly because of metal contamination in the streams and sediment, he says. Berries that once were plentiful are now scarce. The land, in some places, has become a hazard instead of a provider.

I asked him to explain his connection to the local land for this edition of the concrete buffalo podcast. Click the play button to listen:

State to clean up (just of few) diesel buses

By John Sutter

I wrote a story in last week's Oklahoma Gazette about Oklahoma's efforts to clean up some of its dirty diesel school buses. The exhaust from the buses exacerbates asthma and could cause cancer, yet most of Oklahoma City's buses follow old standards and none have been upgraded so that they're healthier for kids -- at least not yet.

Check out the full story here.

And here's a video of a state Department of Environmental Quality staffer explaining a new federal grant program that is expected to clean up some of the emissions, making some kids' lungs a little less sooty:

Grassy cellulose on NPR

By John Sutter

If you haven't heard that some plants other than corn can be made into biofuels, check out this NPR story on efforts in California to turn prairie grasses into ethanol.

Similar research is going on in Oklahoma, and the Tulsa World reports that the state recently received a $15 million grant to research how exactly scientists will go about getting switchgrass ready for car engines. There's already a 1,000-acre switchgrass plot in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Environmentalists have pointed to a host of problems with corn ethanol, and that's made room for non-food crops to claim their spot as the "second generation" of the biofuels movement.

For evidence of this backlash, you need not look further than the SUV the state secretary of the environment drives for state business. GM donated the vehicle, which now is painted with nebulous planty designs (similar to the Hummer above, although that's not the actual vehicle). The old model was this wild yellow color and had corn all over it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ozone meetings coming up

By John Sutter

Ever hear about air quality problems and think -- ah -- that's for place like California, not Oklahoma?

Well, think again. Much of the state is at risk for falling out of compliance with federal standards for ozone pollution, which causes asthma in people and stunts the growth of plants.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is holding two meetings on the issue. Here's some info on those, from the DEQ Web site:

    Tulsa - November 17, 2008, 3 to 6 p.m.
    Tulsa Metropolitan Library, Aaronson Auditorium, 400 Civic Center (5th and Denver), Tulsa, OK 74103

    Oklahoma City - December 3, 3 to 6 p.m.
    DEQ Multi-Purpose Room, 707 N Robinson, Oklahoma City, OK 73102

At the meetings, DEQ will discuss possible boundaries for "non-attainment areas," or the places that have air dirty enough to violate federal laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed its rules on ozone earlier this year, and some state regulators worry about how the laws will be implemented. There should be some interesting discussions if you're able to make it.

And a little background on ozone: It's good up high in the atmosphere, where it absorbs harmful radiation (think anti-aerosol campaigns and talk of the "ozone layer" in the 1990s). On the ground, it's bad. Ground-level ozone is cooked up by sunlight on hot, still days. Its main components come from car exhaust and factory emissions. In Oklahoma City, cars are mostly to blame for the ozone, which is also called smog. In Tulsa, industry has more of an impact.

Monday, November 3, 2008

State question: hunting rights

By John Sutter

I hadn't heard anything about State Question No. 742, which would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to list hunting and as fishing personal rights, until this morning, when I was listening to KGOU, the local NPR station.

The station pointed me to a voter's guide, by the League of Women Voters, which says animal rights groups oppose the amendment because it could limit the state's ability to preserve wildlife for uses other than food and sport. Proponents of the amendment fear animal rights people will try to strip them of their rights to hunt and fish.

Not that this sounds like a reliable source, but someone on at site called, which has a big ole' gun as its banner, says the measure, if passed, would provide a "permanent Constitutional safeguard against anti hunting efforts in the state of Oklahoma."

Let me know if you all have any thoughts. If I learn more, I'll add to the post.

Here's the text of the question, which will be on the ballot tomorrow:
This measure adds a new section to the State Constitution. It adds Section 36 to Article 2. It gives all people of this state the right to hunt, trap, fish and take game and fish. Such activities would be subject to reasonable regulation. It allows the Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve methods and procedures for hunting, trapping, fishing and taking of game and fish. It allows for taking game and fish by traditional means. It makes hunting, fishing, and trapping the preferred means to manage certain game and fish. The new law will not affect existing laws relating to property rights.