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July 22nd, 2017

Insight

Two states of mind

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published May 20, 2015

  Two states of mind

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- What a difference a border can make. Sometimes it marks a difference not just in altitude but attitude. When our neighbors in Oklahoma find the ground shaking beneath their feet, they know well enough what's causing it. Or they should know by now. As quake follows quake in the center of that state, the cause becomes undeniable: the injection of wastewater into deep wells as part of the process called fracking.

The number of good-sized tremors in our neighboring state has multiplied tenfold within just the past three years. The revolution in oil-and-gas production that's making this country self-sufficient in energy and a world petro-power is good news; that it's also shaking up a whole state isn't. Even as Oklahomans go blithely about their oil-producing business. As if nature weren't trying to tell them something.

It didn't take long for our geologists here in Arkansas to figure out the cause when similar temblors began to rattle windows, shake bedsteads and generally unsteady the landscape in Faulkner County, notably around Greenbrier, Ark., and it didn't take this state's Oil and Gas Commission much longer to do something about it, thank goodness. The commission imposed a moratorium on such drilling within a 1,150-square-mile section of the state where tremors had been detected.

Some sound science, new and strict regulation, a sense of social responsibility and a natural respect for the environment and people's peace of mind ... that was all it took here in Arkansas and the quakes stopped. Yes, an occasional aftershock may still be reported. But now it's an oddity, not an everyday occurrence. As it is across the border in Oklahoma.

You'd think our neighbors would know better than to just ignore the problem, but you'd think wrong. And you'd be underestimating the unbreakable grip that the wildcatter mentality has on Oklahoma's economy, psyche and whole culture. Arkies and Okies have a lot in common, but not in this case, and for that those of us on this side of the border can be grateful. For we're still standing on solid ground, not just politically but literally.

It's a mystery to many of us on this side of the border why a whole state should decide that its very foundations are expendable. But what's a mystery to Arkansans seems to be a tradition among Oklahomans.

You'd have thought that not just science but a simple respect for nature, a reverence for God's creation, would have been enough to cure Oklahoma's shakes some time ago. Just as you might think the folks in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia would know better than to go around shearing off the tops of mountains to mine coal. No payroll can be worth committing that kind of sacrilege.

Whatever the economic advantages and disadvantages of so mistreating a beautiful natural heritage, just a basic aesthetic instinct should have shouted: Stop! This is wrong, wrong, wrong. No cost-and-benefit ratio can justify such a sin against nature.

Yes, there is much to be said for the workings of the free market and the persistence of wildcatters like George Mitchell years ago; he never gave up on his search for a better way to produce petroleum. But there's a difference between ingenuity and hubris, just as there is a difference between a free market and an anarchic free-for-all unbound by rules, regulations and the rule of law in general.

Without self-restraint, a whole state can start to shake. Here in Arkansas, we'd prefer to stay in one piece, thank you.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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