Governor Mary Fallin recently released a proclamation declaring Thursday, Oct. 13 to be “Oilfield Prayer Day.” The proclamation was initially requested by the Oilfield Christian Fellowship. Fallin’s justification for the holiday was that “there are many people suffering right now who have lost their jobs in the energy sector … there are a lot of families who have been hurt, and I think prayer is always a good thing, for anyone.”
The official proclamation notes that “Oklahoma is blessed with an abundance of oil and natural gas,” that “Christians acknowledge such natural resources are created by God,” and that “Oklahoma recognizes the incredible economic, community and faith-based impacts demonstrated across the state by oil and natural gas companies.” With this in mind, Fallin invites Oklahomans “to thank God for the blessing created by the oil and natural gas industry and to seek His wisdom and ask for protection.”
There’s a lot to discuss here. Sidestepping the implications of a government entity declaring a day of prayer (I’ve written previously about the separation of church and state), the fact that Mary Fallin just made up a holiday out of nowhere (as if Talk Like a Pirate Day wasn’t enough), and the possibility of religious discrimination (Fallin amended her initial proclamation to encourage people of all faiths to celebrate the holiday), I’d like to focus on two things.
First, rather than placing our faith — literal or metaphorical — in the oil industry and hoping for things to improve, perhaps we should be looking for an alternate solution to the economic crisis and diversifying Oklahoma’s assets.
Oklahoma’s reliance on the oil industry, a strategy which was lucrative in the past, has been causing the state’s budget quite a bit of grief in recent years. A recent study by The State Chamber, an association of Oklahoma businesses and industries, shows that Oklahoma ranks fifth among states in oil and third in natural gas production. It also reports that about 27 percent of total state household earnings in the state are supported by the energy sector.
Recent dips in oil prices have taken a great toll on the industry, and consequently, the state’s budget. Tom Seng, assistant professor of Energy Business at TU, told NewsOn6 in January that the price of a barrel of oil has “gone from around $100 to $30,” in the past 18 months or so. Additionally, oil barons continue to enjoy tax breaks up to $470 million (as of 2015) despite the falling oil prices. According to NewsOn6, all this has resulted in that “the market is flooded with supply without an equivalent demand.” Seng continued to say that the current climate is a shock, and while it’s hard to predict the future of the oil industry, it’s not likely to change in the near future.
This would seem to indicate long-term financial issues for Oklahomans and for the state government, including some of the worst budget cuts to public schools in decades. And what’s the typical response to something that isn’t working? You don’t just hope (or in this case, pray) that it’s suddenly going to improve — you change what you’re doing.
In no way do I intend this as an insult to those who genuinely believe in the power of prayer. Rather, it’s my opinion that change necessitates action. The state government is the body in Oklahoma that is directly responsible for that sort of action. Rather than encouraging Oklahomans to hope and pray for change, it should be actively searching for solutions to incite that change.
In this case, that means searching out alternatives that will bolster Oklahoma’s economy. Though I’m far from an expert in economics, I’d like to suggest a few potential solutions. Perhaps Oklahoma could invest in the production of alternative energy solutions like wind energy (which is already part of the state’s energy industry) or solar energy. Alternatively, some of those tax breaks applied to oil moguls (which don’t seem to have helped much) could be reallocated to some of Oklahoma’s other major industries — information and finance, transportation and distribution, agriculture and biosciences, or aerospace and defense — in an effort to diversify the state’s assets.
Second, if Fallin wants to encourage Oklahomans to pray, there’s a lot of more pressing issues that we could be praying for besides the oil industry.
The idea of praying for a material industry seems adverse in itself, and is almost uncomfortable in its reverence towards the oilfields. To be fair, I’m not a native Oklahoman, and the oil industry has never been a particularly pressing or relevant part of my life, but something about praying for the success of an industry seems off, especially when suggested by a government official.
Bruce Prescott, the retired Norman minister who successfully sued for the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from the Oklahoma Capitol grounds, summed up my thoughts on the subject very well: “There are a lot of things that could be prayed about in this state, and the oil field is not at the top of that list.”
A couple things that could do with a little prayer in the state of Oklahoma: Oklahoma ranks among the unhealthiest states in the nation, according to OKPolicy. A large percentage of Oklahomans are uninsured and don’t have access to reliable healthcare. Also according to OKPolicy, the number of adults receiving welfare in Oklahoma is smaller than the number of women in Oklahoma prisons. As of 2015, the state’s teen pregnancy rate is the third highest in the country. Our schools are facing some of the most drastic budget cuts in the country and some have reverted to four-day weeks because they don’t have the funding to keep utilities running for five. There are about 270,000 Oklahomans living in extreme poverty and Oklahoma’s poverty level has been compared by The New York Times to that of a third world country (I acknowledge that this and the school budget issues are symptoms of the economic crisis. Refer to the first section of this article). I could go on.
I recognize Fallin’s proclamation as an attempt to identify with Oklahoma’s majority Christian population, as any sensible politician would probably do. I also recognize that the proclamation was probably made in an effort to provide hope to constituents in an uncertain economic climate.
However, the state government’s energy would be much better spent on actively searching out solutions for Oklahoma’s financial crisis and encouraging Oklahomans to consider the plethora of human rights issues that are occurring in their own state.