Kevin Drum

The Link Between Fracking and Oklahoma's Quakes Keeps Getting Stronger

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 3:30 PM EDT
A man in Sparks, Oklahoma, picks through rubble from his home following an earthquake in 2011.

Over the last few years, Oklahoma has experienced an insane uptick in earthquakes. As we reported in 2013, the count exploded from just a couple per year back in the mid-2000s to over a thousand in 2010, growing alongside a boom in the state's natural gas drilling industry.

There is now a heap of peer-reviewed research finding that Oklahoma's earthquake "swarm" is directly linked to fracking—not the gas drilling itself, but a follow-up step where brackish wastewater is re-injected into disposal wells deep underground. It's a troubling trend in an industry that thrives under notoriously lax regulations, especially when the risk to property and public safety is so obvious.

If those numbers weren't dramatic enough, here's another: This year, Oklahoma has experienced an average of two quakes per day of magnitude 3.0—enough to be felt and inflict damage to structures—or greater. That's according to a deep, comprehensive report on the subject out in this week's New Yorker.

But even freakier than the earthquakes themselves, according to the story, is the pervasive denial of science coming from state agencies like the Oklahoma Geological Survey, whose job it is to oversee the oil and gas industry:

The official position of the O.G.S. is that the Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes were likely a natural event and that there is insufficient evidence to say that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are the result of disposal wells. That position, however, has no published research to support it, and there are at least twenty-three peer-reviewed, published papers that conclude otherwise.

The story goes on to detail super-cozy relationships between top regulators and drilling company executives; the state's ongoing and systemic habit of dismissing or ignoring the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence about the quakes; and a failure by regulators and the state legislature to take any meaningful steps to address the crisis. It's really quite damning.

As a reporter covering the fracking industry, I've found that a lot of the problems associated with the technique aren't necessarily inherent to it, and could be resolved with more pressure on companies to behave responsibly, or laws requiring them to. Better zoning regulations could keep wells out of neighborhoods. Stricter well construction standards could cut down on the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and help ensure that gas or chemicals don't contaminate groundwater. In other words, while industry may resist them, there are ready solutions at hand to many of the most cited drawbacks. And the same could be true in the case of earthquakes: while many geologists have now found that drilling wells into deep "basement" rock can set off temblors, there still isn't a law in Oklahoma that simply requires locating disposal wells elsewhere.

Their state's lack of basic engagement on the fracking-and-earthquakes issue is, understandably, a source of great frustration to Oklahomans, including those who are otherwise totally supportive the drilling industry. They're worried not only about above-ground damage, but about how quakes might effect the state's vast network of oil pipelines and underground aquifers. It's hard to imagine the nightmare that would result if a serious earthquake ruptured these pipelines and caused a major spill. That sentiment was nicely captured in the New Yorker by a quote from the town manager of Medford, a hamlet outside the oil center of Cushing:

"We want to be a good partner for the oil companies—it's exciting for us that they're here. But if they can move the disposal well even just three miles, what a difference that would make."

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Fabulous Health News

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 3:20 PM EDT

I am blogging direct from the Apheresis Center at the City of Hope in Duarte, California. There's a large machine to my left that makes ticking noises and—hopefully—is drawing blood from one of the catheters in my Hickman Port. The stem cells are then removed and the remaining blood is returned through the other catheter in the Hickman Port.

There was some question about whether this would happen today. You see, my daily Neupogen injections are supposed to stimulate my white blood cell production and therefore my plasma stem cell production. The goal is for my stem cell production to be above 10, and if it's lower than that, there's no point in doing the collection.

So earlier this morning they drew some blood to test my CD34 level. It was....

102.00.

This is superheroic performance, though the nurse declined to tell me if I had set a new world record. In any case, this is great news for two reasons. First, it means no more Neupogen shots. Second, it means that I'm likely to be finished here in two or three days. Yippee!

And this surely demands a treat for everyone. So here's some bonus catblogging. As you can see, Hilbert has cleverly used staircase access to perch himself on the top of Karen's bookcase, where he is lord of all he surveys. As usual.

Science Is Ignoring its "Publication Pollution" Problem

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

In a damning op-ed published Friday, Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at NYU's Langone Medical Center, called out scientists who are turning a blind eye to the scientific publishing industry's "publication pollution problem." At the root of the matter: pay-to-publish journals with weak or nonexistent pre-publication review standards that are "corroding the reliability of research." As he wrote in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, "neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy." 

Consider this recent experiment, as described in the commentary:

Harvard researcher Mark Shrime recently wrote an article entitled "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?: The Surgical and Neoplastic Role of Cacao Extract in Breakfast Cereals." The fake authors he chose for the piece were Pinkerton A. LeBrain and Orson Welles. Shrime submitted this fake article to 37 journals. At last count, 17 had accepted the obviously phony, nonsensical paper. John Bohannon did the same thing with a completely phony paper, with even more depressing results in terms of peer reviewed acceptance to journals. The journals that took these gibberish-laden, concocted articles were scam, author-must-pay, profit driven entities that nevertheless have every appearance of being legitimate journals.

"Predatory publishers" create a seeming win-win situation: the publisher makes money and the author gets a journal article published—currency in the world of science and academia. The result?

Predatory, pay-to-publish, non-peer-reviewed journals flood disciplines with bad or fake science, making it hard, much as light pollution does, to see the real stars. Worse, publication pollution lessons the impact of legitimate science in the formation of public policy, undermining public health, weakening the overall value of legitimate publications in influencing policy, and creating opportunities for the continued power of crackpot views that corrode many areas of public life, such as vaccination, fluoridation, and the prevention and treatment of diseases, such as autism, AIDS, and cancer.

Jeffrey Beall, a University of Colorado librarian who wrote a similar op-ed in Nature in 2012, estimates these publishers make up a whopping 25 percent of all open-source journals. Beall maintains an ongoing list of "potential, possible, and probable" predatory publishers on his website, Scholarly Open Access. He's identified over 1,300 such publishers and journals to date.

Housekeeping Note

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 12:00 AM EDT

My second stage treatment for multiple myeloma starts in earnest on Monday. I'll be at City of Hope the entire week while they collect stem cells and then process and freeze them. Then I have a week off, and then on April 20 I go back for the second stage chemo. That will last three weeks.

Which is to say that I'll be more or less away from blogging for the next six weeks or so. But don't worry! MoJo will keep things going with regular posts from staff members and periodic guest posts from all the bloggers who have been part of the linkfests back and forth with me over the years. It should be fun.

As far as I know, I'll have the technical capability to blog during this entire period. So I'll probably pop in now and again when I have something to say and the energy to say it with. With any luck, I'll be back completely by June. See you on the other side.

Happy Easter

| Sun Apr. 5, 2015 11:18 AM EDT

I slept 7 hours last night! That's the first time this has happened in months. And that was even in addition to an hour or two of napping that I did yesterday afternoon.

This is my Easter present to myself.

Answer Key for Friday's Flowers

| Sun Apr. 5, 2015 12:21 AM EDT

Wondering what all those flowers were that I posted photos of on Friday? Here's the official answer key, starting with the top row:

  1. Calla lily
  2. "Easy Does It" rose
  3. Variegated climbing rose (no tag)
  4. "Julia Child" rose
  5. White floribunda rose
  6. Nasturtium
  7. Daisy
  8. "Cecile Brunner" climbing rose

If you got them all right, congratulations! You're a master botanist

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Health Interlude

| Sun Apr. 5, 2015 12:06 AM EDT

"Flu-like symptoms" my ass.

The last couple of days have been a horror story. On Thursday afternoon, out of the blue, I started having intense lower back pain. Then it got worse. By late evening it was bad enough that I took some morphine, which had very little effect. It got worse through my sleepless night. More morphine at 2 am, then more again at 7 am on Friday morning. At that point, the pain was so excruciating that I wanted to head over to our local ER, but unfortunately Friday was the day we were scheduled to go to LA to have my Hickman port installed for the stem cell transplant. Marian, thank God, insisted on us doing the right thing: driving to LA regardless and getting help there. (On the bright side, Good Friday traffic was light.)

I was practically writhing on the floor for the hour after we got there. Eventually I was taken back to prep, and the doctor tried IV morphine. It had only a minor effect. Then he gave me several IV infusions of Dilaudid, and that did the trick. I was still in pain, but it was tolerable.

Unfortunately, our timing was bad. The Dilaudid was wearing off just as the surgery to install the port began, and they could give me only a limited additional amount until it was over. So the surgery was a horror story too, even though the placement of the port is basically pretty painless.

Long story short, all of this might have been the result of my Neupogen injections, which make my bones work overtime. But my doctors all agreed that although back pain is a common effect of Neupogen, pain of my level was very unusual. Alternatively, all of this could have been due to a pathological fracture in my lower back. A CAT scan ruled that out, thank goodness. So we still don't know for sure what was going on. But after a very bad day and night, apparently the Dilaudid was the right painkiller, and I woke up in the hospital Saturday morning feeling surprisingly good. I would have given long odds against that Friday night.

So....very mysterious. And for me personally, a whole new definition of pain. Hopefully it won't return.

Need a silver lining? As bad as it all was, it was apparently a sign that the Neupogen is working. Routine bloodwork shows that my white cell count is high and getting higher. Hooray! That's what we're hoping for.

On Monday we start putting the Hickman port to use. I will be up at City of Hope for 2-5 days while they extract stem cells and then process them and freeze them. If I'm producing lots of stem cells, they'll finish up in a couple of days. If I'm producing a weak stream of stem cells, it may take as long as five days. Cross your fingers.

Friday Cat Blogging - 3 April 2015

| Fri Apr. 3, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

They say that no box is complete without a cat on top of it. As you can see, Hilbert agrees.

Catblogging will be a little iffy for the next couple of months, because tomorrow Hilbert and Hopper will be going to my sister's house to stay for a while. This is for hygienic reasons, since obviously Marian could take care of the cats by herself while I'm gone. However, my transplant doctor told us that although indoor cats probably weren't a problem even with a compromised immune system, it would be a good idea to board them somewhere else for a couple of weeks before the stem-cell transplant and extending for a few weeks after I get home. So the two furballs will be with Karen for about two months or so. In the interim, catblogging will depend on (a) whatever pictures she sends along, and (b) my ability to post them.

I'll be off at City of Hope next week starting the stem cell collection, so I thought I'd leave you with more than just catblogging. Spring has sprung, and our garden is full of blooming flowers. So here they are for you to peacefully zen out to. In comments, I expect everyone to figure out exactly which flowers these are.

Against All Odds, We Have a Tentative Nuclear Deal With Iran

| Thu Apr. 2, 2015 3:03 PM EDT

Well, I'll be damned. As President Obama just said, the details of the newly announced nuclear deal with Iran matter, and the deal isn't done until those details are fully worked out. Still, I figured the odds of getting even a framework agreement at about 70-30 against. This time, at least, it looks like John Kerry's tenacity has paid off.

The question of precisely when sanctions on Iran will be lifted seems to have been carefully avoided in the press conferences I've seen so far, but presumably that will get worked out. That aside, the framework seems pretty reasonable. I'll be fascinated to learn what tack Republicans take to justify their inevitable opposition.

Headline of the Day: Our Mideast Allies Suck

| Thu Apr. 2, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

Here's my favorite headline of the day:

Inept Allies in Mideast

Emma Ashford so perfectly channels my view of our putative allies in the Mideast that I won't even pretend to objectivity here. I like her piece for no better reason than the fact that I agree with nearly every word of it.

This doesn't get President Obama off the hook for mistakes he's made, and it doesn't necessarily mean the US has a better strategy available to it. The world is what it is. Still, more people should understand just what we're up against in the region. The answer is: just about everything.