Nobody cares about despoiling West Virginia with coal mining

Sure to create controversy is the news that the Senate has ok'd the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling effort. Sure to create controversy, but not to bother me any. Why? The ANWR covers 19,049,236 acres, which is 79,318 km². For reference purposes, the land area of the Republic of Ireland is 68,890 km². They might spoil some of it by drilling, but I think you'd be hard pressed to ruin the whole thing.

I know, I know. It's not all homogenous country. But if it reduces the need to import foreign oil and by extension the games the government will play to be able to do so cheaply, go for it.

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I don't dispute your

I don't dispute your content, but I have to dispute your title. Plenty of folks in WV object loudly and long to the remaining coal mining in their state (in particular to "mountaintop-removal mining", the rhetorical "partial-birth abortion" of the preservation movement).

Frankly, I'm of two minds about the whole thing. West Virginia is full of ridiculously beautiful scenery, the bulk of which remains utterly unnoticed and unused by anyone except the economically devastated and illiterate hicks of the back hills. It's clearly underutilized in its current state, but coal mining doesn't really seem like an optimal use. And when you see the streams dyed neon colors by mine runoff, it's hard to pretend that coal-mining is a private enterprise, Coase be damned: ain't nobody internalizing that cost. At least there's some hope of an eventual private sector for tourism.

I'm on the uninformed end of

I'm on the uninformed end of the fossil fuel extraction issue, at least in terms of means & methods of one vs. the other. Perhaps someone can fill me in...until then, I'll just put forth my thoughts:

"Mountaintop Removal" coal strip mining is, to be sure, abhorrent. So is externalized pollution from the operations. However, I'm really not sure if ANWR oil drilling will be anything close to such an operation. I know liquid petroleum extraction is not as simple as drilling a hole in the ground and tapping into it---but, on the other hand, I highly doubt that it requires the environment-destroying methods utilized in the massive strip-mining ops. I'd appreciate an unbiased learnin' from someone as to what the ANWR oil extraction will entail in terms of environmental disturbance.

In more ephemeral terms, I prefer a property-rights-based approach, with great attention paid to property-external environmental effects, to be adopted, rather than the government buying a mass of land and saying "nothing can be done here".

I'm on the NRDC "Biogems" mailing list (it's fun to see what the nuts are thinking), and, expectedly, I got some e-mails this morning lamenting this decision by congress. The problem with outfits like NRDC is that I don't see alot of principle-based consistency. They're just opposed to anyone doing anything to the places they think are pretty. This sort of unprincipled position is also seen with groups like PETA, who fight, tooth and nail, to save cute, furry little critters like mice and guinea pigs, but rarely extend the same concern to insects, etc. Given that "beauty", like "cuteness", is subjective, their positions are extremely weak. You have pointed out that groups like NRDC don't make a big public stink over West Virginia's strip-mining ops, and there's probably a good reason for it---the same reason why PETA doesn't burn down buildings and cause property destruction over the dung beetle: it's not principled, it's emotional. It's their pet cause, "save the wildlife refuge! think of all the poor antelope!" Whereas West Virginia is, to them, just a little hick-infested backwater burg. And dung beetles, ewww, you can't pet those! So why try to save them?

I prefer a

I prefer a property-rights-based approach...

Then you might like reading some of the position papers on this website.

I am a West Virginian. The

I am a West Virginian. The alleged "raping" of West Virginia's mountaintops has been greatly exaggerated. Besides, even if mountaintops were being leveled by the hour, it creates cheap, usable land for economic development -- something that is scarce in this state.

Malls, schools, golf courses -- all of these developments are located on what was once a "strip mine." Without the level land, the excavation costs to build such developments would be enormous, and most likely would kill the projects before they got off the ground.

And I've never once seen a body of water (stream or otherwise) with a neon tint in West Virginia -- and I have lived all over the state.

They’re just opposed to

They’re just opposed to anyone doing anything to the places they think are pretty.

Have you seen pictures of ANWAR?

Here's the nice bits:
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0111/life.html (click on the "Photo Gallery" link)

Some more nice bits:
http://www.voanews.com/english/AmericanLife/2005-03-14-voa15.cfm

This is cool too:
http://www.anwr.org/gallery/pages/11-Bears%20on%20pipeline.htm

Which leads to a bunch of photos:
http://www.anwr.org/photo.htm

Note that it's near Kaktovik that they want to drill, which is on the "northern slope" of Alaska, but from what I've read isn't really much of a slope, and in the summer is more like the "Northern swamp" of Alaska. The only thing "pretty" about it is the mountains off in the distance. Way off on the distance.

Pretty is in the eye of the beholder, and while I'd like to set eyes on this place, IMO there's a whole whole lot of it, and it's not *that* special.

I was born in West Virginia

I was born in West Virginia and, yeah, there are drawbacks to the mining but, yeah, you can live with it. And still enjoy beautiful scenery round about.
95% of the people who claim to have a huge, personal problem with drilling for oil in northern Alaska will never even visit Anchorage, let alone any part of the "National Wildlife Refuge."
And, remind me again: we get along just fine without T. Rex and the dodo, but we simply MUST HAVE caribou because...?

McClain, "And, remind me

McClain,

"And, remind me again: we get along just fine without T. Rex and the dodo, but we simply MUST HAVE caribou because…?"

...because they are part of a pretty complex ecosystem. Taking out one part of a system can often cause unforseen effects in other parts of the ecosystem. And while we could maybe live without caribou, there might be some other things affected that we'd prefer not to live without. I'm not an ecologist, so I can't tell you what these things might be. But I think that it's important to realize that many parts of the environment that we live in are interconnected in various not-yet-completely-understood ways. Tinkering with the parts might not be such a great idea until we have a better grasp of the whole system. (A silly example: I'd like to have a few more wolves around so I didn't have to dodge so many deer with my car. I suspect that the farmers in my area would go along with fewer deer, too.)

By the way, where in WV were you born? I'm from Ravenswood, on the Ohio about 40 miles downriver from Parkersburg.

But "taking out one part of

But "taking out one part of an ecosystem" happens all the time, usually without human intervention. Species appear, mutate, and die out.

Also, we're not talking about species that humans have a vital link to. It's physically isolated, in a completely different climate.

And you don't need more wolves to keep the deer population down. More humans preying on them would do just as well. I wouldn't mind finding deer meat in the grocery store, especially if it encouraged more human predation of the excess deer population. And I suspect that those farmers wouldn't be too crazy about more wolves out and about.

Ken says, "But “taking

Ken says,

"But “taking out one part of an ecosystem” happens all the time, usually without human intervention. Species appear, mutate, and die out."

Not that I'm completely on the same page as Joe, but...

This is just gross ignorance of the factual evidence. The "natural" background rate of species extinction, in moderate (non-ice-ages) eras, sans massive human intervention, is relatively low to what we are seeing today. According to some studies, the current species extinction rates are as much as 11,000 times the background rate, though it's probably more in the area of 1000+ times. There is no consensus, except for that humans have, without question, dramatically increased the species extinction rate.

I'm no environmentalist, but I at least like to see people get their facts straight. Too often, I hear anti-environmentalists make the bunk argument that "species die all the time, that's no reason to fret!" Yes, species die all the time at a natural rate, but when you increase that rate thousand-fold, then, well, that consitutes an obvious difference.

As for how this pertains to ANWR, first, anyone who thinks that ANWR oil drilling is going to cause the caribou to go extinct is a fucking fool. Second, even if the drilling did result in some species eradication, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the other thousands of species that die off around the world every week.

Ken and Evan, Hey, don't get

Ken and Evan,

Hey, don't get me wrong here. I'm not raving environmentalist. Indeed, as a consequentialist, I'm happy, in principle, to allow exactly the sorts of tradeoffs that both of you suggest. As long as the long-term consequences of the exchange work out to a net positive, then I've no problem with a few dead species. I only intended to point out that we ought not be too cavalier in considering all of the potential consequences of our actions. I don't actually think that the fate of all caribou rests on the fate of ANWAR.

That said, I have worries about ANWAR drilling not so much for environmental reasons, but because I'm not convinced that there is really all that much to be gained by doing so. First, most estimates of the total available reserves in ANWAR show that what is there really boils down to a pretty small fraction of current needs (I think 1% of the U.S. needs is the most common number I've seen.) While 1% would make some impact on pricing, it won't really correct any long-term problems. Second, it will be many years before any of that oil is available. And third, new supplies of oil are likely simply to extend the period during which we rely on fossil fuels without looking seriously at more sustainable alternatives.

I like my various plastic things. I'd much rather see us use our oil supplies to extract more useful polymers rather than burning it all up in our giant cars. But as long as oil is cheap, there is no real incentive for private industry to invest significantly in things like fusion, geothermal energy, or solar sattelites. The second and third of these alternatives are already within our capabilities, but coal and oil are too cheap to make them very plausible.

My worry here is that our consumption of fossil fuels, though rational by current market standards, might turn out in the long run to have pretty bad consequences. Unless of course we find another good source of long-chain hydrocarbons to keep constructing milk jugs and peanut butter jars.

Joe, I like my various

Joe,

I like my various plastic things. I’d much rather see us use our oil supplies to extract more useful polymers rather than burning it all up in our giant cars. But as long as oil is cheap, there is no real incentive for private industry to invest significantly in things like fusion, geothermal energy, or solar sattelites. The second and third of these alternatives are already within our capabilities, but coal and oil are too cheap to make them very plausible.

My worry here is that our consumption of fossil fuels, though rational by current market standards, might turn out in the long run to have pretty bad consequences. Unless of course we find another good source of long-chain hydrocarbons to keep constructing milk jugs and peanut butter jars.

It looks to me as though you have identified an entrepreneurial opportunity; since there is a foreseeable error, you could make a lot of money correcting it.

Prices are signals that combine two variables; supply and demand. Price coordinates both at the same time; high prices discourage demand and increase supply, the degree that they do depending on the elasticities of the two components. The only bad consequences to fossil fuel consumption that I can see is if the price is kept artificially low such that we overconsume and yet give no signal to develop new sources of energy (be that exploration for new fossil fuels or new technologies).

I don't see subsidies for oil consumption keeping prices low; the low prices of the 90s were due to a glut of supply, and the high prices now due to supply worries as well as increasing demand.

Furthermore, I disagree heartily that there is "insignificant" investment in developing other energy sources. The amount spent on fusion research is staggering, and that's not including public/state spending. THere are also plenty of research programs funded by charitable/philanthropic organizations for the other alternatives you mentioned (though solar satellites would be blocked by the enviro lobby as well as through the US's chokehold on the nascent private space industry).

Which comes back to the entrepreneurial point. If you think the market is making a mistake and you can make more money, then you *should* get in there and fund it. The rest of the market believes the situation is less dire than you do, and funding levels reflect it. In this, as with most things, I do not believe that one can find an 'objective' level at which to prioritize alternative energy research, etc. One could easily make as much of an error (or more) in that direction as any other (for example, spending far too much on technologies that we never end up needing, because we find that oil is, say, orders of magnitude more plentiful than we imagined, etc, etc)

Evan, Yeah, the human impact

Evan,

Yeah, the human impact on species extinction is pretty clear cut. When humans first entered North America, there were camels, horses, giant flightless birds, and all sorts of other huge mammals & avians. Within a geologic blink of an eye, 99% of them were wiped out.

Ditto for Australia- mass extinctions that oddly and always coincide with the first arrival of anatomically modern humans. Ditto for Polynesia.

In fact, the further you get from Africa, the more of any given area's species have been hunted to extinction by stone age humans. Mostly due to the evolution of humans' hunting toolkit & practices over time and animals co-evolving with people. In Africa, the animals still extant there have always been around people. They have a healthy aversion to people and that keeps them alive.

Animals that have never seen a person before often just ignore them; which is how sailors were able to walk up & slaughter as many seafaring birds as they wanted on various pacific islands, because the birds would just stand there.

I imagine, though, that if anything the extinction rate has to have gone *DOWN* as humanity has progressed, especially since the industrial revolution. People don't have to kill wildlife for food, which is the primary and overwhelming reason for extinction in the human period of Earth's history.

Nick, I've been on field

Nick,

I've been on field ecology trips back in the day and mine runoff causes a bloom in acidophile bacteria, which tend to be a rather garish red/brown. It looks like crap & generally accompanies a low pH/O2/dead stream.

Granted, they aren't nearly as common as people would like to think.

Brian, Isn't there still a

Brian,

Isn't there still a problem with markets as far as long-term forecasts are concerned? I do, in fact, invest in companies looking at sustainable energy sources. I'm also pretty young, so I'm not really looking at needing a return on investments for quite some time (since currenty most of my investments are aimed at securing retirement). So it makes some sense for me to invest in risky ventures that have the potential to pay off very well, but which are not likely to do so for maybe 20 or 30 more years. That sort of strategy makes less sense for those looking to fund retirements in the less distant future. Unfortunately, it tends to be people who are older than I who have greater amounts of income for investing.

So my question, I guess, is this. If there is some line of research that could yield substantial payoffs, but that line of research is not likely to mature in time to do the vast majority of investors all that much good, then will the market really adequately address such research? It doesn't look as if markets give me very much incentive to care about what happens after I die.

I'm not sure, too, whether markets really compensate adequately for items which really will run out at some point. Doesn't the fact that we don't know when the stuff will run out have the effect of artificially lowering prices? We don't know when we'll run out; is there any guarantee that we'll know when we're running out? I don't know how wells work. I picture them being like drinking through a straw that's in a completely opaque cup. One minute, you're drinking away and the next minute, you're drawing mostly air. Maybe that's not how wells work at all.

And by the way, I agree about the enviro lobby issues with solar satellites. They were probably feasable years ago. But the NASA problem is weakening, I think. Private spacecraft are starting to make headway, and NASA is going nowhere fast.

The point that is frequently

The point that is frequently overlooked here is that the proposed exploration will not ake place in ANWR "proper". When Congress established ANWR in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANCILA), they deliberately left out the coastal plain (area 1002), awaiting "further information" concerning resource availablilty in Area 1002.

The actual land that has been named, by federal law, as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge *will not* be subject to exploration. The proposed drilling area was explicitly excluded from ANWR by Congress for the very reason that there might be oil there.

Thus, using the term "drilling in ANWR" is thoroughly dishonest.

I want to post a short

I want to post a short comment, I am a resident of the North Slope.

I read a comment here that really ticked me off. The impression I got from looking at a few comments here was just because it's not pretty up in the northern part of alaska, (where ANWR is) everyone thinks it's okay for the government to drill.
I know for a fact that there are a lot of Eskimos who depend on their subsistence way of life, and they depend on the caribou herds for food, like they have for thousands of years. I think drilling in ANWR would contaminate the caribou herds.
Would you like it if the govenment wanted to drill right next to all the cow herds in the USA, and you had no say or way of stopping them?