Thursday, September 20, 2012

Europe and the Injustice of not Fracking?

I write this post from the Tuebingen, Germany. Earlier today, I climbed up to its Schloss (castle), which sits atop a hill overlooking the Neckar river, the woods, and the half-timbered buildings with steep roofs covered in rust red tiles. As I looked at the city below, I was struck by how much habitation I saw and how little transportation --- all homes, shops, and squares with outdoor dining and very little by way of roads and cars. By contrast, my plane flight over Dallas-Fort Worth showed mostly asphalt highways. Tuebingen is a world of habitation (homes, flower beds, and sidewalk cafes) vs. the DFW world of transportation (highways, parking lagoons, and strip malls).

Europe has generally taken a harder line against fracking than the US. A recent Bloomberg story reports some startling contrasts:
  • Whereas the US is chugging along whole hog with unconventional, shale gas deposits, many European countries have suspended (UK) or banned fracking outright (Bulgaria and France) or are considering such bans (Czech Republic).
  • Despite having more than four times the estimated reserves of the Marcellus formation, Europe is projected to grow more dependent on imported natural gas (LNG). Imports of natural gas are expected to grow by 74% with the US providing a good chunk of that.
How do we explain US shale gas mania and EU shale gas reluctance?

One hypothesis has to do with different conceptions of the public good. To put it crudely, Europe tends to put up sidewalk cafes where the US tends to put up highways (of course, this is a matter of degree). Europe tends to think about public goods in terms of idling together (chatting over a beer or coffee), whereas the US tends to think about public goods as services for accessing the next private space (going by car from business to home). So, perhaps in the US we think always in terms of private property -- if the public sphere is just the connective tissue between private activities rather than a different, and higher, kind of human community. Maybe the US is shale gas crazy because this resource is a private good quite compatible with our basic moral commitment to private kinds of happiness (video games and all the rest). Maybe Europe sees such deposits of minerals as a threat to genuinely public activities  -- as the Bloomberg article notes, there is not much room to frack in Europe without disturbing a farm or a little chat at a sidewalk cafe over a cup of cappuccino.

But, then again, we are all Western heirs of John Locke (and the centrality of private property), so it seems that this explanation for the difference may be wanting.

It might be more simpler to assert that the US prefers the risks of action and Europe prefers the risks of inaction. Maybe this has something to do with WWII as a sobering experience for Europe and America's enduring hope-filled frontier mentality. Europe knows the world is finite and fragile, the US knows it is ever-expanding and robust. Europe is precautionary (the heir of Clifford and European guardedness); the US is proactionary (the heir of James and American pragmatism).

But more interesting to me is the moral question: Can European countries justifiably refuse to develop their shale resources while continuing to consume shale gas from other countries? It is the classic Not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) dilemma. I think they can only do so by positing some conditions under which shale gas development is morally acceptable and arguing successfully that they do not meet those conditions but others do. Most probably, this would entail arguing that shale gas can be developed where fracking occurs far from important water resources and far from human centers of population.

But these conditions don't seem to be satisfied even in the US, where the 'frontier' was officially closed in 1893 and where we have since learned about how everything is inter-connected.

So, is Europe justified in claiming that it will take only the consumption-side benefits, but not the production-side harms? If we are not going to change our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyles, can we say 'no' to fracking in our backyards? Well, if we have a strict market sense of justice, then maybe so...after all European countries are paying over three tims as much for gas as the US is right now. For the market, it is all just calculated self-interest: do we want cheap gas but some production risks, or do we want costly gas but with lower risks of harm?

Now, the tough question for Denton -- can we justifiably restrict fracking in our city while continuing to demand natural gas resources? If the price of the way we live (let's not forget how fat and happy most Americans are and that humans, until very recently, lived hard lives cut short by abscessed teeth) is the greater risk entailed in getting energy, then don't we have some moral obligation to shoulder our fair share of that price? What is 'our fair share'?

No comments:

Post a Comment