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StateImpact’s Biggest Stories of 2014 and a Preview of Reporting for the Coming Year

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma
Brothers and business partners Fred and Wayne Schmedt stand in their family's wheat field near Altus in southwest Oklahoma.

StateImpact racked up thousands of miles traveling across the state this year, filing more than 40 full-length radio features and hundreds of web posts on how government energy, environmental and economic policy affects ordinary Oklahomans. And many of those stories involve issues that are ongoing.

EPA Regulations

On of the first broadcast stories we filed this year was on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional haze rule, and how pollution from Texas coal plants dirties the skies above the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. Volunteer firefighter and avid hiker Bill Cunningham took us to the top of Mount Scott to show us the pollution the rules are supposed to fight.

“It’s just a haze hanging in the air. It’s kind of a white film that you can see on that southern horizon. And it lingers and persists,” Cunningham told reporter Logan Layden.

Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma
Meers area resident Bill Cunningham looks for haze over the Wichita Mountains from the top of Mt. Scott.

Those EPA regulations were among the last stories StateImpact filed this year as well. That’s because Oklahoma is fighting federal environmental rules every step of the way. Leading the charge, Attorney General Scott Pruitt and U.S. Senator Jim Infhofe, who likes to make statements like this:

“Our air is the cleanest it’s ever been,” Inhofe told StateImpact in November. “And now they’re pushing for these regulations. But the thing is it’s not something you can look at the cost/benefit of … Our air already is clean.”

With Inhofe gaining more power over environmental policy, and the EPA set to finalize major rules in 2015 — like the Clean Power Plan and methane regulations — we expect Oklahoma’s fight with the federal government to play a big part in our coverage next year.

Wind Energy

We’ll keep a close eye on what federal rule making means for Oklahoma and its environment, but state government policy is at the center of all of StateImpact’s reporting. We filed several stories on wind energy this year, and we expect that will be a big issue in 2015, too. Oklahoma regulators, politicians and Native American tribes are all wrestling with how to manage property rights and a promising, booming industry.

Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma
Bob Hamilton, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Okla.

Bob Hamilton, the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska Osage County, told us turbines would be bad for Oklahoma wildlife.

“It’s a real estate issue. Location, location, location,” Hamilton says. “Where you put industrial wind development can be a tremendously critical decision, especially if you’re talking about at-risk species and ecosystems that are at risk.”

The 2015 session is more than a month away, but high-profile lawmakers at the state capitol are already talking about prioritizing legislation related to wind energy.

Water and Drought

Water played a major part in StateImpact’s reporting this year. For a four-part series on the state’s most environmentally sensitive rivers, we followed them — all the way from Arkansas down to the southeastern most reaches of Oklahoma, where Eddie Brister runs a fly-fishing shop.

“If we didn’t have the health of that stream, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. People wouldn’t be here fishing because there would be no fish as we know it right now,” Brister told StateImpact.

Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma
Debbie Doss picks up garbage and loose clothing left behind by careless tourists along Lee Creek.

The impact of development in northwest Arkansas and along the border with Oklahoma on water quality in the eastern part of the state will only become a bigger story as time passes and the growth continues, but we also interviewed Oklahomans struggling with drought. From small-towns faced with evaporating water supplies to wheat farmers like Fred Schmedt who were stricken with one of the worst harvests on record.

“What would you call that, high shoe-top high?” Schmedt asked Joe Wertz rhetorically while standing in one of his wheat fields. “In a normal year — a really good year — it’d be thigh-high. So we’re looking at plants that are 6 to 8 inches tall versus 24 to 30 inches tall.”

Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma
Lisa Davis (right) with the advocacy group Save Lake Texoma near the Rooster Creek Bridge at Lake Texoma State Park.


Water also plays a surprising role in another big issue StateImpact covered in 2014 — earthquakes. And how millions of gallons of wastewater from oil and gas drilling could be triggering a lot of the shaking. Scientists say there’s a link, but the energy industry has been skeptical. Meanwhile, everyday Oklahomans like Ester D. Blaine are calling for more regulations, responsibility and oversight.

”The earthquakes have been so hard, so tough. It shakes the whole house. It knocks pictures off of the wall, that’s how tough they been,” Blain said to the audience at araucousJune town hall in Edmond.

Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma
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.

Stories about water policy and the impact of drought on communities and agriculture, the growing importance of groundwater are all on the schedule for 2015, as are new regulations for oil gas companies.

But other issues could take center stage and define our coverage for the coming year: Like what the plummeting price of crude means for a state economy so dependent on oil.

If you know of a story StateImpact should cover — we want to hear about it. Please contact us with story ideas and news tips! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or reach out to us individually:

Reporter Joe Wertz: jwertz [at] stateimpact.org | 405-325-3028 | @joewertz

Reporter Logan Layden: llayden [at] stateimpact.org | 405-325-7675 | @loganlayden

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state.
Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.
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