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Staggering Rise in Fracking Earthquakes Triggers Kansas to Take Action

Fracking
Staggering Rise in Fracking Earthquakes Triggers Kansas to Take Action

It seems unlikely that Kansas, known as one of the most conservative states in the U.S. and home to fossil fuel barons the Koch Brothers, would take action against the oil and gas industries. But in the face of a new wave of earthquakes attributed to the underground injection of fracking wastewater, its industry regulating body, the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC), ordered a reduction of wastewater injection in two counties abutting Oklahoma, finding that increased earthquake activity correlated with increasing volumes of injected fracking water.

Kansas has taken action in the face of a wave of earthquakes tied to fracking operations. Image credit: Dutchsinse.com

"Because individual earthquakes cannot be linked to individual injection wells, this order reduces injection volumes in areas experiencing increased seismic activity," said its official report. It added, "The commission finds increased seismic activity constitutes an immediate danger to the public health, safety and welfare. The commission finds damage may result if immediate action is not taken."

The commission's report pointed to findings by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that the number of earthquakes in Kansas has risen over the past several years.

"USGS data shows from 1981 through 2010, Kansas experienced 30 recorded earthquakes," it said. "In 2013, there were four recorded earthquakes in Kansas. The number of recorded earthquakes reported in Kansas during 2014 increased to 127. From January 1, 2015, to March 16, 2015, Kansas has experienced 51 recorded earthquakes. The majority of the earthquakes have occurred in Harper and Sumner Counties. The increased number of recorded earthquakes in Kansas coincides with an increase in the number of injection wells and the amounts of injected saltwater in Harper and Sumner Counties."

As a result of this jump in earthquake activity, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback convened a task force last year which delivered its Seismic Action Plan in September. The commission issued its order a few weeks ago. While it doesn't ban injection wells, it limits them, imposing fines on companies that don't comply. It will no longer issue permits for certain types of high-volume injection wells in the two impacted counties.

The Tulsa World reports that the Kansas Corporation Commission's new order resulted from a complaint filed by a citizen, Frank Smith, who lives in the affected area. He said that earthquakes have damaged homes, businesses and a historic courthouse.

“Prior to the ruling, we had zero protection here in Kansas, and Oklahoma at least gave a bit more than lip service to looking out for the welfare of its residents,” said Smith.“The KCC has now taken a much more proactive stance than I feel Oklahoma has done."

In Kansas' heavily fracked neighbor to the west, regulators and scientists have been under pressure from its oil and gas industry to downplay the link between wastewater injection and its dramatic increase in earthquake activity.

A trove of state government emails obtained by media in response to a public records request revealed that Oklahoma state seismologist Austin Holland had been called into a meeting with Oklahoma City-based oil and gas tycoon Harold Hamm where Hamm expressed his "concern" that earthquakes were being linked to the fracking process. Holland called that meeting "intimidating."

The Tulsa World reported that, when asked at a recent town hall meeting whether Oklahoma is learning from other states how to stop man-made earthquakes, Holland nodded and said  “Earthquakes don’t stop at state lines."

Apparently, aggressive action does. The paper said that, in contrast to Kansas, whose report and order are posted online, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has convened an earthquake committee that is "holding meetings that are closed to the public. The committee does not plan to issue any reports or recommendations."

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By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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