Among some of the most unproductive questions I am asked regularly include questions of the type, “are you in support of XYZ?” As if XYZ is some monolithic, black and white, easy to understand and represent with the word XYZ, thing. Of course, it is not. So, in the past I’ve been very evasive when people ask questions like, “Do you not support recycling?” or “Do you support primary education?” The simplest problem with such questions is that they are entirely opaque. What is “recycling” for example? And on what measures do I support it? Are we talking about government funded curbside recycling of cardboard? Are we instead talking about private efforts to recycle scrap steel? And are we talking about mere dollars and cents? Pollution? And so on. So just saying, “I support recycling” is not only uninformative if you stop to take the time to think about it, but I find it largely counterproductive, dangerous, and a sign that you in fact have not thought about.
There are other reasons to not answer that question. Some economic. Some not. Another economic reason is that it all depends on what margins we are talking about. So even if we agree on what we mean by recycling and for what purpose we wish to do such a thing, we have to talk about what margin. Do you support recycling the very last paper clip produced, which may have found its way to the bottom of the ocean, while every other paper clip ever has been recovered and recycled? I think you get the point. A non-economic reason to answer the question is that the way many folks like to paint people into particular tribes (which may not be a bad thing), answering a question like, “Do you support recycling?” is just about the same as answering the question (for some), “Do you support discrimination against disaffected minorities?” or “Do you support abortion?” or “Are you a global warming denier?” All of this is absurd of course – there is actually no scientific reason why one’s views on recycling should in ANY way correlate with one’s views on abortion – but you can bet your bottom dollar that if someone blithely answers, “I do not support recycling” you are able to have a good (Bayesian) answer to other unrelated questions.
With that in mind, we come to the title of the post. I have never answered the question, “Do you support fracking?” I don’t answer it for reasons above, but also because I’m no expert, nor are the people who are asking me about it. But what I WILL answer is this: “I support cheap energy, from wherever it comes and whomever produces it, so long as such production is in accordance with the rule of law and reasonable social costs are internalized.” I have long suspected that fracking met this standard, but I am not positive, so I don’t come out and say, “I support fracking.” Indeed given the political and emotional controversy surrounding it, if the technology were a clear home-run I suspect there would be more agreement on what to do about it. So the reason for the post is that there may very well be elements of the fracking process (either technology or politically) that I don’t know much about that would cool my “support” for fracking (again, assuming we even know what we mean by that). What are some of these issues? On the environmental side, if the fracking interests are in bed with the regulators, that industry is just as likely to be captured as the banking sector. So although statutorily it appears that there is plenty of oversight for the fracking process, it practice there may not be — although increased competition and awareness of the practice is probably moving safety and compliance in the right direction. Similarly, neither I nor you have any idea how the contracts to access the trapped gas are executed and administered. I caught wind of a very unnerving thought the other day. It turns out that (some, all, many, etc?) fracking companies have not been purchasing property rights to drill sites and underground resources in the same way that you and I purchase houses. Why? For one, gas that is trapped miles underground is like a common pool resource that spans the property claims of many entities. Second, accessing said gas requires companies to negotiate with above ground land claims in order to make the well boring. I think the latter is easy to handle. But I’ve seen it more than hinted that local and state governments have been using the power of eminent domain to grant fracking companies access to contested resources below ground. Even if the local and state governments compensate the “owners” of such confiscated property, these certainly qualify as takings as in the 5th amendment.
And why is this disappointing? Because if you play tribal affiliation, you would be inclined, without asking, to say, “I support fracking.” Of course, you’d be finding yourself in a twisty pretzel trying to defend fracking when they seem to be the beneficiaries of property takings. And these takings are not for a properly understood “public purpose” – the Kelo decision be damned. And I don’t see all of the property rights and liberty advocates digging into this issue to see if it is true, and if so to go batsh!t crazy about the property takings like they did when Suzette Kelo’s house was taken by government to give to a private crony friend (drug company). You might say that “we” just didn’t know about it. And my response is, “see my point above.” Which is why it is essential that folks take principled and consistent views on the fundamental ideas that matter. So, if you care deeply about property rights and the Rule of Law, then such principles should guide “what you think” about all issues, and not just the issues that are convenient for some tribal view. Hence, one can support cheap and reliable energy and at the same time demand that fracking companies play by the same rules as everyone else – and that either the eminent domain takings stop, or the fracking companies compensate the victims for well more than I suspect the governments compensate them in such cases, should someone be able to make any reasonable case that there is a “public purpose” served by accessing energy. Of course there is a public benefit as well as a private benefit, but that is true of almost any activity that is profitable.