Oklahoma

Economy, Energy, Natural Resources: Policy to People

Joe Wertz

Joe Wertz is multi-platform reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. He has previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla., lives in Oklahoma City, and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.

  • Email: joe@stateimpactoklahoma.org

State Budget Agreement Brings Sharp Funding Cuts to Agencies Overseeing Oklahoma’s Environment

Oklahoma Water Resources Board project coordinator Jason Murphy takes water samples at the Canadian River east of Oklahoma City.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma Water Resources Board project coordinator Jason Murphy takes water samples at the Canadian River east of Oklahoma City.

After months of deliberation and closed-door meetings, lawmakers in the Oklahoma House and Senate are poised to cut a deal to fill a $1.3 billion shortfall and fund government for 2017.

The $6.8 billion presumptive budget agreement has been praised for preserving money for education, prisons and Medicaid, but some of the sharpest cuts are aimed at agencies that regulate industry and protect the environment.

Outfitted in rubber waders on a frosty winter morning in the middle of nowhere, Jeanette Lamb with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission kicks up a pile of mud from the riverbed at Walnut Creek, along a farm in rural McClain County.

She stares deeply into the mud, searching for a light-brown critter whose big mandibles pack a punch.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” she says, before warning, “They bite. It’s a Dobsonfly larvae.”

The kinds of bugs she finds — or doesn’t find — says a lot about the health of this stream.

“They cannot tolerate pollution at all,” she says. “They’re very sensitive.”

If Lamb finds something wrong, she’ll work with local landowners to identify the pollution source. She didn’t find any problems here during her inspection last winter, at least with the wildlife. But her agency’s budget situation is another story, according to the Conservation Commission’s Water Quality Manager, Shanon Phillips.

“[In] 2009 we had a staff of 40 people,” Phillips said. “We now have a staff of 25. Future cuts would mean further reductions in staff.”

The Conservation Commission will likely receive a 9 percent cut, and the agency’s director Trey Lam says it already operates on a barebones budget.

“Currently 20 percent of the state’s Conservation Districts are sharing employees, including seven districts that have no staff,” Lam says. “Our ability to protect our natural resources and maintain our flood control system is at risk.”

The new cuts could hurt the commission’s ability to monitor the health of small waterways and maintain more than 2,000 flood-control dams across the state.

State Senators Greg Treat, Clark Jolley and David Holt emerge from a Republican Caucus meeting after members agreed on a framework for a $6.8 million state budget.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

State Senators Greg Treat, Clark Jolley and David Holt emerge from a Republican Caucus meeting after members agreed on a framework for a $6.8 million state budget.

Regulatory reductions

Even steeper reductions are likely coming for other environmental and regulatory agencies. The Department of Mines and the Water Resources Board are on tap to have their state funding reduced by 12 percent.

“We will probably have to scale back our monitoring a little more,” says OWRB executive director J.D. Strong.

The funding cuts will degrade the Water Board’s ability to monitor the health of lakes, rivers and streams, Strong says. The state’s water regulator will likely have to slash the amount of money available for its Rural Economic Action Plan program, which grants money to local water managers who need to make expensive fixes to their crumbling water systems. Strong says the REAP account will be cut by at least $400,000.

“That will mean fewer grants that we’re able to provide to really small, rural communities across the state to help them improve wastewater and drinking water infrastructure,” Strong says.

Vance Pennington, a regional manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, inspects a chlorine treatment system at a water treatment plant in Chandler, Okla.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Vance Pennington, a regional manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, inspects a chlorine treatment system at a water treatment plant in Chandler, Okla.

Small towns, big problems

The cuts could hurt other agency programs designed to fix water problems in small communities. The Department of Environmental Quality also faces a 12 percent reduction.

“What will suffer in the longer term if we continue to receive general revenue cuts, is our ability to do some of the things that especially the smaller communities rely on the most,” DEQ’s Deputy Director Jimmy Givens told StateImpact in February as the 2016 legislative session was about to start.

Many of the DEQ programs protecting Oklahoma’s air and land are paid for with fees and federal dollars, but oversight and inspection of local water systems is funded by state revenue. Cuts to state funding disproportionately affect DEQ programs that make sure local water supplies are safe to drink, and that wastewater discharged from municipal and industrial sources isn’t polluting the environment, Givens said.

In response to years of budget cuts, DEQ has closed field offices. It used to have 39, it now has 22. The agency has also sharply reduced its roster of inspectors — from 89 to 58 — that monitors community water systems, which struggle to keep up with increasingly strict federal rules.

If DEQ can’t ensure clean drinking water for Oklahomans, the harder-nosed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could step in and takeover. That’s a last resort, but it could be a big challenge for small towns used to the state agency’s soft touch.

“EPA has the residual right to come in and do enforcement,” Givens said. “Nobody particularly wants that.”

Harold and Amy Coulter with their granddaughter at Walnut Creek State Park, which closed due to budget cuts in October 2014.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Harold and Amy Coulter with their granddaughter at Walnut Creek State Park, which closed due to budget cuts in October 2014.

Pushing out parks?

The Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation is also in line for a 12 percent hit to its state funding.

The agency has responded to previous budget cuts by shedding state parks. This year, officials have considered turning over some small parks near Grand Lake to the Grand River Dam Authority. Spokesperson Leslie Blair says that’s still a possibility.

“At this point it’s too soon to know what our exact approach is going to be,” she says. “We’re taking a look at the bill and seeing what those numbers are.”

More responsibility, less funding

Agency leaders say the 2016 budget agreement outlined in Senate Bill 1616 chips away at a funding stream that’s been declining for years. At the same time, the responsibilities of those agencies are increasing as the federal government imposes stricter environmental rules.

Officials say some environmental and regulatory programs could disappear. Even whole agencies aren’t safe. The Scenic Rivers Commission had all its funding stripped in 2016 and will cease to exist on July 1.

The Grand River Dam Authority will assume its responsibilities — and employees. GRDA CEO Dan Sullivan was shocked when he first saw the budget the Scenic Rivers Commission was working under.

“I can’t imagine that they’ve been able to do what they have done on the budget they have,” Sullivan said.

“Oklahoma Insurers Have Raised Rates as Much as 300 Percent for Earthquake Polices”

Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak is considering regulations that create a “file-and-use” system for earthquake insurance policies, “meaning insurers would have to submit rate increases to the Oklahoma Insurance Department in advance,” The Oklahoman’s Brianna Bailey reports.


The market for earthquake insurance has experienced significant concentration into a handful of personal lines earthquake carriers over the past five years, according to data complied by Brian Gabbert, chief of market regulation for the Oklahoma insurance Department. At the same time, the total amount of earthquake premiums written in the state has nearly tripled from about $7 million in 2010 to $19 million in 2015, according to the insurance department.

Read more at: newsok.com

Small Oil and Gas Producers Urge Lawmakers to Keep or Amend Rebate for Unprofitable Wells

Columbus Oil Company owner Darlene Wallace in the field with a "stripper well," which produces two-and-a-half barrels of oil a day.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Columbus Oil Company owner Darlene Wallace in the field with a "stripper well," which produces two-and-a-half barrels of oil a day.

The deadline to fund state government is rapidly approaching, and legislators are struggling to bridge a $1.3 billion budget gap. One idea is to end a tax rebate for unprofitable oil and gas wells, but small oil and gas producers say their safety net shouldn’t be used to plug the state’s budget hole.

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“Senate Cotes to Trim Tax Credit for At-risk Wells”

The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would end a tax break for “economically distressed” oil and gas wells, The Oklahoman’s Rick Green reports.


This could save the state nearly $133 million next fiscal year as the downturn in the oil industry has greatly increased the number of financially risky wells. In good times for the industry, the cost to the state was only about $4 million a year.

Senate Bill 1577, which is now to be considered in the House, was approved 37-6.

In a year in which the state faces a $1.3 billion budget hole, this tax provision simply got too expensive, bill proponents said.

“Failure of this bill would result in cuts to Medicaid, education and other core services,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond.

Read more at: newsok.com

Reuters: Insurance Companies Limit Exposure as Oklahoma Earthquakes Soar

Insurance companies moved to limit their exposure as Oklahoma’s earthquake rate exploded, according to an investigation by Reuters.

Examining thousands of pages of documents from the Oklahoma Insurance Commission, reporter Luc Cohen found the efforts by nearly a dozen insurance companies “often occurred at the expense of homeowners”:

Even as they insured more and more properties against earthquakes in the past two years, six insurers hiked premiums by as much as 260 percent and three increased deductibles. Three companies stopped writing new earthquake insurance altogether, state regulatory filings obtained by Reuters show. Several insurers took more than one of those steps.

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“Environmental Groups Sue Over Oil-field Wastewater Regulations”

“Three environmental organizations this week sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking for national rules and regulations on the handling and disposing of produced water and other waste products,” The Oklahoman’s Adam Wilmoth reports.


MAY 6, 2016 – The Environmental Integrity Project, the National Resources Defense Council and Earthworks filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, saying federal regulators need to set national rules following produced water spills in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas.

Read more at: newsok.com

Federal Scientists Worried Oklahomans Were Getting Wrong Message on Earthquakes, Records Show

Shaken residents line up inside Edmond's Waterloo Baptist Church to voice concerns and ask representatives from the Corporation Commission and the state Geological Survey questions about recent earthquakes.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Shaken residents lined up inside Edmond's Waterloo Baptist Church in June 2014 to voice concerns and ask officials questions about Oklahoma's spike in earthquakes.

Federal researchers feared Oklahomans were getting inaccurate information and inadequate warnings from state government scientists and officials tasked with studying and responding to a surge of earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity, a StateImpact investigation has found.

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Inside the Examination of Wind Energy Tax Incentives

A NextEra Renewable Energy Resources wind farm site near Elk City, Okla.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

A NextEra Renewable Energy Resources wind farm site near Elk City, Okla.

A $1.3 billion budget hole and state funding crisis fueled by low crude prices has polarized a debate on the state’s financial support of wind-generated electricity.

Wind energy opponents aligned with oil billionaire and Continental Resources founder and CEO Harold Hamm want to kill wind incentives and impose a production tax similar to those levied on oil and gas production. Wind companies and supporters, for their part, say the incentives are vital and effective.

But there’s more to this debate than competing billboards along Interstate 35, The Oklahoman‘s Randy Ellis and Paul Monies report: Continue Reading

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