Wednesday, February 6, 2008
How should land use law balance environmental concerns with essential economic needs? I remember the argument, back in the 1970s, that we should replace much of our unreliable foreign sources of oil with good ol’ American coal. Today, we’d reject such a suggestion, in large part because coal is such a nasty generator of greenhouses gases. But what about American lands that offer new sources of oil and gas? And what if they are environmentally special? In many instances, plans to extract these fossil fuels pit the local and state governments (who stand to gain only a share of the benefits but all of the potentials harms) against the national desire for fuel. In my state of Florida, the state has fought efforts to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, where a spill could threaten Florida’s tourism. And on the Roan Plateau of western Colorado, the state government is trying to use land use law to prevent the Bush Administration’s Interior Department from issuing more gas leases –- leases that have suddenly become profitable with the spike in world fuel prices.
There should be no doubt that if places like the Roan Plateau (or Alaska’s North Slope) held reservoirs of fuel in amounts like those in the Persian Gulf, the benefits to the nation would outweigh most environmental concerns. But with relatively small benefits, it may still make sense to leave the risks to foreign nations, so long as we have the cash to pay for their resources.