I saw the man with the gray beard and jug of brown water at least five or six times.
Along with a few other protesters, he made his rounds to ensure that all in attendance at the anti-fracking rally got a good look at the tap water that now flows from his faucet in Dimok, Pennsylvania.
Home-made protest signs reading, “People + Planet, Not Profit” and “Frack Off” bounced up and down over the heads of stone-faced farmers, stay-at-home-moms, and college-aged instigators that made me long for the days when I still had that much fire in my belly.
This particular anti-fracking rally took place last summer in front of the Capitol building. It wasn’t particularly memorable compared to other rallies I’ve witnessed, but the anger was palpable. And why not? After all, many of those in attendance had become unchecked casualties in the American fracking revolution.
Ignored by corporate interests and placated too many times with empty promises and rhetoric from lawmakers with fake plastic smiles and only about ten or fifteen minutes to spare for the peasants, how could anyone not side with these poor folks who now live in a world where their water has been poisoned and the value of their homes has plummeted?
As an unapologetic environmentalist, I felt for these folks. They were tired, frustrated and disenchanted with a system that was supposed to protect them. But that, dear reader, is the problem.
Rules and Regulations
Nearly every protester in attendance that afternoon was demanding swift action from the government. They wanted more regulations, more rules, more oversight. But what few failed to realize is that there were already plenty of rules and regulations in place. Rules and regulations, by the way, that have actually resulted in less environmental protection for “the people” – and more protection for polluters.
To give you an example of what I’m talking about, just last week we learned from the Environment America Center that from January, 2011 to August, 2014, the 20 largest fracking operators in Pennsylvania averaged more than 1.5 violations of health and safety laws per day. These violations included everything from dumping toxic waste into local waterways to endangering drinking water supplies due to improper well construction.
It’s also being theorized that there were likely more violations, but the environmental laws currently in place are rarely enforced.
According to a 2012 report from environmental advocacy group Earthworks, Pennsylvania oil and gas regulators conducted fewer than 20 percent of the inspections state rules required. The report also noted that many similar violations in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, and Ohio were likely underreported, too. Apparently, there just haven’t been enough inspectors to investigate the large number of wells that have popped up over the past five years.
Bureaucracy vs. Property Rights
The truth is, quite a few of these oil and gas companies (not all) treat safety rules and regulatory hurdles as afterthoughts. Rarely are these things properly enforced, and when they are, in many cases, the penalties are too lenient to deter future violations.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not writing these words to criticize the entire oil and gas industry. Although I find our continued reliance on an outdated internal combustion engine to be, for lack of a better word, stupid. Particularly when there are much better mousetraps from which to chose. But the oil and gas industry is simply responding to consumer demand.
Certainly I would sleep much better at night knowing that all of these companies were operating in a manner that respects property rights and makes every effort to ensure that they don’t trivialize the value of our natural capital. But without strong property rights protocols in place, what’s the motivation to do so? If you’re looking for altruism, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.
As much as many of my fellow libertarians love to support the oil and gas industry, we cannot do so at the expense of liberty. To ignore property rights is to ignore human rights. Yet this is exactly what we do to manufacture an unnecessary protection for the oil and gas industry, as well as other fossil fuel and mining industries.
As law professor Jonathan Adler wrote a couple of years ago …
“In principle, a commitment to property rights should entail a commitment to protecting people and their property from unprivileged or unconsented to invasions. Imposing waste or emissions on another’s land should be recognized as a violation of their rights.”
I couldn’t agree more. And quite frankly, if we chose to honor this very rational commitment to property rights, perhaps the oil and gas industry wouldn’t even need to be weighed down by a mountain of superfluous rules and regulations dictated by a confederacy of bureaucrats and moral do-gooders.
As we continue to move forward into 2015, there will be new calls to further regulate the oil and gas industry. New rules will be introduced, some will pass, some won’t. But without the aggressive protection of property rights, nothing will change. While making it even more difficult for responsible oil and gas companies to operate profitably, we’ll still pollute our air, ruin our soil and contaminate our water – all because we continue to rely on the government, instead of voluntary cooperation, personal responsibility, and constitutional guarantees to protect our environment