Who Owns the Land (Part 2 of 3)
Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV
Land in this country originally belonged almost entirely to individuals. The principal industry at the time was the acquisition of products of the land, won by hard labor. Experience in Europe had shown that concentrated land ownership produced inefficient use, separation of the population into different social classes, and frequent change of ownership of estates for service to the king, with little regard for best utilization of the land.
When the new United States began, the objectives were to minimize social differences among people, and to maximize the efficiency of producing goods from the use of resources, namely obtaining products of the land. Industry and trade were important, but mostly privately owned and lacking the complex legal structure of today. So both land ownership and business ownership were relatively dispersed. However, from the beginning, the government retained “eminent domain.” This was recognition that the function of a government was to regulate society to benefit all. So “ownership” is ultimately a right to operate land and pass it to ones designated heirs. The owner has “tenure,” but his or her use is for the public good.
Other arrangements are possible, of course. But, the point here is: “ownership,” as frequently thought of, is an inadequate conception. One “owns” (has tenure) land (or any other business) for his/her lifetime so long as they have a viable enterprise. When mineral extraction reduces the production of the surface it is damage not only to the present owner, in his ability to pay his debts and live well, to pay taxes, to enjoy the product of his labor, it injures future generations as well.
The unpaid for costs (including health effects and a host of other problems) of mineral extraction are referred to as “externalized costs” in economics. They have characterized mineral extraction for all history. I can show you the marks of coal mining, deep and strip mining, and I can show you the effects of early oil and gas extraction.
The previous injuries to the surface in Appalachia are huge, as everyone knows, but are relatively small in extent compared to what is coming with shale drilling. Six to ten or more acres paved out of each square mile for 100,000 square miles of Appalachia alone. Mini brownfields on many of them. Hundreds of miles of new pipeline right of way, kept cleared by spraying or brush cutting until the last gas has passed through.
This loss of productive capacity and value to the present tenants is a devastating loss. It is a loss to society, too.
If you look at aerial photographs or satellite pictures you have to be impressed with the percent of land area that already is “built up,” not having vegetative cover. If the increase in population projected occurs, still more land will be converted to accommodate it. The industrialization and one time, historically short term (probably no more than 20-25 years) use of rural land for shale drilling is a great loss to future generations.
Why is this not thought of? Shale drilling is the most hyped industry of our time, perhaps ever. It uses little labor compared to the total expenditure – it is capital intensive. The abundance of cash and the drive for additional investment make subordination of government and public opinion necessary. Corporations live in the present. The past is no lesson and the future is no worry. They hustle for immediate returns.
Most of our citizens are not aware of the need for environmental regulations, preferring amusements and taking a stance of ”I can’t do anything about it, so why try?” The government and the business community can only see industrial development as a way forward – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, as Einstein said.
So the law is one-sided (as explained in my previous article) and the legal establishment is enriching itself by stretching it to the limit. Regulatory agencies and the legislature consist of people who have too much to do to spend time in study or field work, and are fully subject to the necessity to get campaign funds for the next election.
So where does that leave the public interest? Big looser! One more reckoning day ignored. One more Sword of Damocles over public interests.
Next: The final part of the series: The Extraction Syndrome