OKLAHOMA CITY — Heavily funded, out-of-state activists are threatening Oklahoma’s oil and gas resources and vast pipeline network, a consumer energy group warned in a recent report.
Consumer Energy Alliance officials said the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Food & Water Watch have operations in Oklahoma or members who are working to halt production in the state.
“They’re bringing together Native American issues with energy development, and they really view the state of Oklahoma as a key battleground state in their fight against the fossil fuel industry,” said Wyatt Boutwell, a vice president with the Houston-based nonprofit and Oklahoma state director. The group advocates for what it calls “sensible energy policies.”
Not only is the industry vital to Oklahoma’s economic and cultural heritage, it’s also home to a substantial pipeline network that flows into a key hub in the Payne County town of Cushing, he said.
While acknowledging no major upswing in anti-oil and gas lobbying in the halls of the Capitol, he said environmental groups are building and mobilizing grassroots support in local communities across Oklahoma.
“You build your constituent group and build your foundation before you go out and push for a particular point of view or your agenda,” Boutwell said. “Just because you don’t see it now (at the Capitol), doesn’t mean you won’t.”
In an email, spokeswoman Jorja Rose said Food & Water Watch is doggedly fighting fracking and fossil fuel infrastructure nationwide. It opposes the “destructive development” everywhere, including Oklahoma, she said.
“Front-line communities bear the brunt of the impacts of leaks, spills and inevitable air and water pollution from such oil and gas endeavors,” said Rose, who grew up in Oklahoma City and now lives in Washington D.C.
“Meanwhile, big oil and gas continue to enjoy massive tax breaks in Oklahoma, leaving communities without money for public services like health care and education,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we fight their greedy fossil fuel agenda, which deepens the climate catastrophe that is already burning and flooding this country from coast to coast, and dumping a record number of tornadoes on our state?”
The Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club has existed more than 45 years, and has 4,000 members in all 77 counties, said its director Johnson Bridgwater.
“(Our members) pay taxes and hold jobs all across the state of Oklahoma, no different than Oklahomans who support fossil fuels,” he said. “Oh, they just don’t like the water pollution, the earthquakes, and the land degradation that fossil fuels consistently cause in our state.”
Chad Warmington, president of the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, said Oklahomans experienced some environmental activism with protests over the construction of the Diamond Pipeline a few years ago.
Still, the energy industry has long been entwined with daily life in Oklahoma, where most residents are largely comfortable with producers’ presence, he said. The alliance represents about 1,300 companies and 3,000 individual members.
“I think Oklahomans, in general, get it,” he said. “It’s a pretty mutually beneficial relationship.”
Also, he said the Legislature remains proactive in protecting infrastructure while energy companies have done a good job planning and communicating with residents ahead of projects. Those two efforts also have largely deterred opposition.
As a result, environmental groups’ efforts have not gained as much traction in Oklahoma as in other parts of the country, Warmington said.
“It’s just never really caught on, and I think that’s a good thing for Oklahoma because we need to be competitive,” Warmington said.
Earthjustice did not return a message seeking comment.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.