Environmentalism and Energy Problems

Mr. Siegan is the author of Land Use Without Zoning and many articles on the subject. He practiced law for 20 years in Chicago before moving in 1973 to La Jolla, California where he is professor of law at the University of San Diego Law School.

Copyright 1974 Bernard H. Siegan

Whether there is an energy crisis, crunch or problem, the only law that will relieve the situation is the law of supply and demand. The legislative and executive branches of government should consequently remove obstacles to its operation such as the many laws and regulations adopted in the name of environmentalism that decrease supply and increase demand.

This country has been on an environmental binge in recent years that is now raising havoc with the environment of the average American. The nation’s lawmakers have been sold on a highly restricted definition of the word environment by those who contend it applies only to nature and the wild.

For the average person, the only meaningful environment is that experienced daily, in the home, on the road, and at work, and we are learning the hard way that each requires a maximum supply of energy. Indeed, what part of nature or the wild has done more for human happiness, comfort, and well-being than a smelly, ugly, dirty oil refinery?

On the other hand, there is not now nor will there ever be an energy crisis for the relatively few who reject the automobile or want to go back to the earth. There was no meat shortage for vegetarians either. For people of such persuasion to make environmental determinations is akin to appointing Bobby Riggs as spokesman for Women’s Lib.

The problem is one of competing interests. Certainly clean air is a most laudable objective. In our modern society however, it doesn’t come without the sacrifice of equally or more desirable goals. Pollution control devices have lowered auto emissions by reducing engine efficiency, appreciably increasing the consumption of gas and adding to the cost of purchasing and maintaining a car.

The use of coal or oil with higher sulphur content has been banned, further decreasing energy supply. Air pollution control requirements have raised the cost or prevented the building of new or enlarging of existing oil refineries and other factories. The construction of power plants, both nuclear and conventional, and oil refineries are being blocked to preserve areas that very few Americans will ever see, hear or read about.

These are a few of the examples which demonstrate that the laws passed in the name of the environment are actually doing a disservice to it. Admittedly, when they were not engaged in fighting the Alaskan pipeline, off-shore drilling, strip mining, new refineries and power plants, and deep water ports, environmentalists did urge conservation of natural resources, including oil. However, their desire to conserve on the use of oil is but one small part of a much larger package intended to basically change the prevailing life style of the country. They seek a massive transformation of our commercial and industrial society.

Any solution to energy problems necessitates that laws be eliminated inhibiting production and wasting consumption. Much of the benefits of off-shore oil drilling and gas and oil extraction from shale will be lost to auto and factory emission controls that are now required even in those vast portions of this country where there are no air pollution problems. Such requirements are unwise in the best of times; they are absurd when problems arise.

Before oil can be recovered from off-coast and shale deposits, present law requires that extensive reports be prepared and public hearings be held, the principal effect of which will be to consume more paper, electricity, gasoline and dollars. Regardless of the information obtained, few minds will be changed. The oil industry will favor and the environmentalists will still oppose development.

But this lengthy ritual may not cause the pumps to flow oil. Environmental groups appear likely to file law suits and the length and effect of the litigation will determine when and how much oil can be recovered. Almost every effort to extract oil from new sources or to build power plants seems to bring with it loud threats from environmental groups to prevent the action through litigation. Past performance indicates these are not idle promises. While a suit was not filed to stop the current work on the Alaska pipeline, this was due apparently more to concern for public opinion than for energy.

When Congress earlier in 1974 adopted statutory authority for the Alaska pipeline, it included a provision restricting litigation exclusively to constitutional issues. Although there is some question as to the validity of this restriction, it is certainly a small step in the right direction. At the very least, the public is entitled to demand that those responsible should pay for the harm these lawsuits create. The Alaska pipeline might now be supplying oil and would surely cost much less were it not for the lengthy litigation sponsored by environmentalists.

All the while they vehemently deny responsibility for contributing to energy problems, environmentalists do much to increase and prolong them. It is time we placed their objectives in a more realistic perspective.