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Oklahoma May Resist Federal Regulation, But Its Environmental Record Isn’t Terrible

Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, is probably best known nationally for his role in orchestrating a legal backlash against President Obama’s environmental regulatory agenda. Now he’s President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

So it’s probably a good time to look a little more closely at the state of the environment in Oklahoma. Pruitt’s history — and the state’s notorious issues with earthquakes caused by the disposal of wastewater from the oil and gas industry — might suggest that Oklahoma would fare particularly poorly on indicators of environmental quality and protection. But the state is solidly middle-of-the-road in many respects, neither the best nor the worst, and even boasts some environmental wins that could come as a surprise.

Take fossil fuels for instance. While coal is Oklahoma’s primary source of electricity, its use in the state had been on the decline for a decade before Obama’s Clean Power Plan came along. (That means — regardless of what the lawsuit suggests — the CPP isn’t what’s hurting the state’s coal power plant business.)

What’s more, Oklahoma has been bullish on renewables. The shift away from coal has largely been the result of an increased reliance on wind power, as opposed to natural gas, which has replaced coal in a lot of other states. Despite a lack of state standards or incentives pushing it, Oklahoma’s use of non-hydroelectric renewables increased by 16 percentage points between 2004 and 2014, while the use of coal dropped 13 percentage points. Because of this, the state emissions rate for electricity production (which is what the CPP would regulate) has already been going down. Ultimately, the decrease that the CPP dictates for Oklahoma between 2012 and 2024 is smaller than the amount the state’s electricity emissions rate fell between 2004 and 2014.

Overall, though, the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are up just a bit since 2004. Oklahoma has the 17th-highest emissions rates in the nation, in part because of an increase in emissions from the use of natural gas in industrial applications, commercial buildings, and transportation — as well as an increase in emissions related to gasoline for transportation.

That data helps demonstrate where Oklahoma stands when it comes to climate change, but another important thing to consider is water and air quality. Both can have an immediate, direct impact on human health and are tied to the release of particulate matter and toxic chemicals from industry. One way to track this is with the EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators Model, which analyzes toxic chemicals released by industrial facilities, what happens to them, and their potential risks to human populations. The RSEI ranks Oklahoma as the 23rd riskiest out of 55 states and territories as of 2014.

You could also look at the American Lung Association’s State of the Air rankings of cities, which are drawn from EPA data. There, the state’s two largest metropolitan areas — Oklahoma City and Tulsa — fare poorly in a ranking of U.S. cities by the number of days each experiences high levels of ozone pollution, a lung-damaging gas that forms when the chemicals from vehicle emissions react with sunlight. Tulsa ranks 12th worst, and Oklahoma City 15th, out of 220 metropolitan areas. But on measures of particulate matter — tiny specks and droplets of pollutants that are tied to the release of emissions from power plants, cars, and factories — Oklahoma reverts back to its not-great, but-not-horrible self, with Tulsa and Oklahoma City making neither the Lung Association’s list of cleanest cities, nor its list of most-polluted. Tulsa is ranked 63rd and Oklahoma City 83rd.

The point of all this is not to say that Pruitt will be an excellent steward of the environment. He hasn’t been directly in charge of the environment in Oklahoma, for one thing. It’s also worth noting that our ability to know that Oklahoma is just kind of “meh” on environmental indicators is dependent, in large part, on federal data-gathering and analysis — and it’s hard to know whether Pruitt will want to continue those programs given his apparent belief in a smaller role for the EPA. But what this does demonstrate is that, for a wide variety of reasons, a state’s hostility toward federal environmental regulation is not a very good proxy for the quality of that state’s environment. The fight against regulation is only one part of a much bigger picture.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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