The perennial policy tug of war between energy development and its effects on the environment has many components, and the position of any given politician, interest group or individual citizen is usually heavily influenced by the particular component that is considered to be paramount. But that doesn’t mean that the other components have suddenly evaporated or are of no further relevance or value. The considerations in any analysis of energy development versus its effects on the environment include the visual, aesthetic, nostalgic, economic and practical; and whether the anticipated effects are real or perceived, significant or inconsequential.
Not surprisingly, in an era of 24/7 cable news, reflexive and unfiltered commentary on social media (including by our president), and instantaneous “knowledge” courtesy of Google and Wikipedia, any hope for civil and informed discussion on this topic is all but futile. Yet, we are still a representative democracy, consisting of elected officials who are charged with governing the other 325 million of us. Their policy decisions will have cascading consequences for us and future generations.
Just like one’s perspective on any issue, the direction and conclusion of any policy analysis can be influenced by the way in which the terms of the debate are framed. For instance, in the debate between energy and the environment, what is the ideal against which any policy question is to be measured? For the past 50 years — in which “environmentalism” has morphed from a movement to stop seemingly unchecked pollution by industry into a crusade to “freeze” the state of nature and prohibit any sign of mankind’s presence — the environmentalist movement has declared untouched nature to always be good and any progress by man to always be bad. If that is, indeed, the measuring stick, then energy development will always be found wanting, when compared to preserving pristine nature.
But should that be the measuring stick? It seems dangerously analogous to voluntarily engaging in a hunger strike and expecting any result other than death by starvation — i.e., man will take no steps to preserve himself through the development of life-sustaining energy, where it might have even the slightest adverse effect on nature. In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein challenges this premise head on and argues that the more rational measuring stick should be: Does this position help or harm human flourishing? In other words, instead of making nature the ultimate focus of our concern, we should make decisions that put the protection and preservation of people as our highest priority. Many well-meaning environmentalists have likely conflated the two goals, believing that protecting nature at all costs from human action is the same thing as protecting humans — but that clearly isn’t the case. Damming rivers to generate electric power is for human purpose, but it is an act that changes nature. Cutting down trees is for human purpose, but it is an act that changes nature. Paving roads and highways through prairies, plains, deserts and forests are for human purpose, but they are all acts that change nature.
In response, many environmentalists might argue that their real point is that any act that changes nature ostensibly for man’s benefit should be weighed against any adverse effects that act will have on nature — a point with which Epstein would readily agree. Both the benefits and the consequences should be considered. But, when it comes to a discussion of energy versus the environment, that sort of balanced analysis rarely happens.
In my experience, when environmental groups attack the oil and gas industry, they never acknowledge the incredible and pervasive role that those energy sources have played, and continue to play, in making life livable and fueling our modern economy. Likewise, when extolling seemingly nature-respecting energy sources like wind and solar, these same groups fail to acknowledge the adverse effects these sources have on nature — like bird kills; the hazardous mining, use and disposal of rare-earth metals; and the elimination of ecosystems by the installation of vast solar farms. In a dispassionate and objective assessment of the pros and cons of different energy sources, there should be a more complete debate. That debate should revolve around this central premise: Which policy enhances human existence?
A recently released report on one of the current targets of attack by environmental groups — hydraulic fracturing of shale to develop oil and natural gas — appears to contain a valiant effort to analyze the issue in an objective and comprehensive manner. “Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas” was written by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST). This group of Texans consists of members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine; Nobel laureates; respected academics from major Texas universities; and representatives from environmental organizations, the oil and gas industry, and state government. The report addressed six topics: geology and earthquake activity, land resources, air quality, water quantity and quality, transportation, and economic and social impacts. TAMEST’s findings and recommendations in each of the six topic areas are based on presently known data and recognized science.
In the report, there are no indictments, but there are investigations and inquiries. Where the science demonstrates actual or likely harm, appropriate action will need to be taken — but not in the form of absolute prohibition or Luddite resistance. It is so critically important that catastrophic fear-mongering not be allowed to choke off all rational analysis. While the industry should never stop striving to do its job better, safer and cleaner, there must always be an acknowledgement that the exploration, production, transportation and refining of oil and natural gas simply don’t happen in clinical, germ-free environments. One plaintiff’s lawyer I dealt with in many oilfield-pollution cases used to argue to the judge that the presence of any additional molecule of an oilfield-related pollutant (e.g., weathered oil, barium, lead, etc.) on his client’s property was actionable and compensable. That kind of extreme position is unwilling to concede that the countless benefits provided by petroleum might actually outweigh in no insignificant way the alteration of nature by adding to the naturally occurring level of an element in the soil by even the smallest measurable amount.
As the venerable, old saying goes, “reasonable minds can differ” on a given issue. But unreasonable minds add nothing to a salutary debate and resolution of a policy issue. Unreasonable minds distort and distract from the desired goal. One-sided analysis is, by definition, unreasonable. Our pursuit should be creating an environment in which man flourishes — and that means cheap, abundant, reliable and efficient energy.
About the author: Bill Keffer is a contributing columnist to SHALE Magazine. He teaches at the Texas Tech University School of Law and continues to consult. He served in the Texas Legislature from 2003 to 2007.