BY DAVID PERRYMAN
Prior to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1792, processing cotton had been a low-profit, labor-intensive drag on the agriculture industry of the American South. In fact, most early Americans believed [and many hoped] that rock bottom cotton prices would never sustain the long-term viability of the “peculiar institution” of slavery and that the immorality would eventually be swept away.
Instead, the efficiency of the cotton gin spurred an immediate and unimaginable demand for raw cotton. Skyrocketing prices made cotton king and for generations, slavery and the southern economy were inextricably intertwined. King Cotton became the foundation of the southern economy, southern culture and southern pride.
The world had never seen an industry that was so wealthy, so pervasive and so overwhelmingly controlling as King Cotton. No other industry of like power appeared until the rise of King Oil 100 years later. Wielding massive amounts of financial, cultural and political influence, King Oil was allowed to dictate the terms of its own existence.
Nowhere has a government been more capitulating than Oklahoma where legislators have drank deeply from the well of oil and gas campaign contributions.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission had no general authority over the industry until 1915 when the commission began hearing cases that dealt with the protection of mineral owners, production companies and affected citizens. That protection within municipalities was largely left to the police power of the local governments themselves.
In 1935 the Oklahoma Legislature adopted Section 137 to the Oil and Gas Code making it abundantly clear that cities and towns possessed the authority to protect its waters, its residents, its roads and bridges and the property of its citizens from the effects of oil and gas production.
For eight decades the oil and gas industry complied with zoning regulations and setbacks. Through the years, municipalities were allowed to protect their resources from pollution, their citizens from harm and their roads from ruination.
As the industry experienced huge profits and made big campaign contributions, political influence ballooned. In 2015, nearly 80 years to the day after the 1935 Oklahoma Legislature had affirmed the power of municipalities to protect citizens, lawmakers abruptly reversed course.
The oil and gas industry called its chit. Legislators whose campaign accounts burgeoned with oil and gas cash, dutifully obliged with the passage of SB 809, repealing Section 137 and adopting in its place a diametrically opposed Section 137.1 that basically stripped municipalities of their regulatory authority and placed most oil and gas activities under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Corporation Commission.
Cities and counties striving to protect residents by imposing setbacks of wells from homes or fracking noise ordinances or regulate the round the clock flaring of natural gas in close proximity to houses, businesses and other structures, were either sued or threatened with suit. One county that attempted to protect drainage in its ditches, culverts and bridges was sued in the Supreme Court and forced to repeal its regulations.
This session, those same legislators, who four years ago put the interests of oil companies ahead of the people of our state, have been joined by several new faces and are in the process of working HB 2150 through the Legislature. This bill would create a Section 137.2 aimed at blocking municipalities from enacting ordinances or resolutions to protect citizens or property rights if the effect of the regulation would “make it more difficult” for the oil and gas to be produced. No matter that the intent of the municipality is to protect things like roads and bridges.
While this will be advertised as a “mineral owners rights bill,” the true benefit will inure to the “King Oil” corporations who own a growing percentage of Oklahoma’s minerals. Unfortunately, campaign contributions from oil companies will once again influence more votes than will what is right or what is best for the citizens of Oklahoma.
–Chickasha Democrat David Perryman represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House and serves as minority floor leader