Crew Commentary

Choices, Consequences and Congress

Tim Rumage - Planetary Ethicist


This article was originally posted on Planetary Ethicist.


Last week Congress set about the task of repealing one set of regulations aimed at keeping streams safe from coal mining impacts and another to reduce liabilities of escaped methane. The primary reason for the repeals was that the regulations were burdensome on industry. And they were. They would have cost both industries money.


The coal industry would have to monitor water quality before, during and after mining activities, and if water quality went down, the mining companies would have to restore the stream to its previous quality/viability/verdancy. The natural gas/fracking operations would have to reduce loss of “fugitive” natural gas from leaks, venting and flaring (the intentional burning off of natural gas). Those operations would incur the increased cost of monitoring for leaks, fixing leaks, and for capturing – not flaring – natural gas.


What Congress failed to realize, or did not care about, was that repealing the laws did not change the reality of the declared burden. The burden does not go away. It’s shifted to those who do not profit from mining and fracking. The harm will still exist and continue, but the financial burden will revert to communities, local businesses and the citizens. It will be manifested in increased health care costs, lost tourism and recreational activities, reduced property values, missed school days by impacted children, and shriveling communities as their youth seek their fortune in more vibrant places. It’s a textbook example of siloed-thinking with the common boundaries:


  • industry is more important than citizens;
  • business is more important than the environment;                                    
  • a partial story hides the full story;
  • a defined few benefit over the many;                                
  • the harvest of the immediate trumps the welfare of the future.


Democratic Senator Edward Markey said the coal industry’s request that Republicans kill the rule amounted to saying: “Please protect us from having to protect the public.”


The regulations were supposed to benefit the public while being burdensome to the industries. The ones who profit while generating the harm should be the ones to pay for the harm. If the product you are selling is natural gas – why would you want it to become a fugitive from your company’s bottom-line? You cannot sell the product you did not capture. If you are a mining company why would you want to increase your potential liability by harming the health and compromising the resource base of your local community? Plus, if those triggering the harm have to pay, then they have an incentive to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their operation. That generally leads to increased profits and a reduction of the liability burden.


The costs the industries incur while improving their operations need not be passed on to consumers. Set up a foundation and work with a local college to do the monitoring and to test improvements to the operation. While that may sound costly to some, if you set it up correctly – it is all tax deductible.


My native state started commercial coal mining in 1820. The world population was just over one billion people. Now I live in a state that has a growing fondness for fracking, and on a planet with a human population of over 7.4 billion people. Alvin Toffler wrote, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” It is time for Congress, industry, and the rest of us to get down to the business of unlearning and relearning. It is the only way forward. Continuing the behaviors and practices of the past will not, cannot, get us to the future we should have.