Fracking and the Tragedy of the Commons

Fracking is a complicated issue in shale-rich communities of the country, which start with American property rights. They are unique almost the entire world over. When America was getting itself going, the Founding Fathers were highly impressed with enlightenment thinker John Locke. Locke had particular ideas about property, which he laid out in his Second Treatise on Government. In it, he wrote that a government “can never have a Power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the Subjects Property, without their own consent. For this would be in effect to leave them no Property at all.”

His ideals echoed a sentiment expressed in Roman Law that he who holds the land holds it “up to heaven and down to hell.” In America, you own the mineral rights below your land and also the sky above it. This is why private landowners can sell air rights and lease their land to be drilled for oil and gas. Energy companies approach private landowners and offer signing bonuses, royalty checks, and other cash considerations for the inconvenience of leasing their land. The entire transaction occurs in the ‘private’ sphere of American life: it’s a personal decision, and the government can’t regulate it. In other countries, these companies need to go to the state or national government to obtain these rights.

Jerolmack is an environmental sociologist who spent the better part of a year living in Williamsport, PA, a fracking hub located on top of one of America’s most extensive shale deposits. He chronicled his research and experiences in his new book Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town

Jerolmack isn’t rabidly anti-fracking and understands the allure that fracking has on the area: cash payouts and a chance to get rich quick. The real problem with fracking, he said, was it created externalities that all of the residents had to absorb—whether they leased their land or not. The private decisions of lessors infringed on the lives of their neighbors. 

Boring a mile into the earth to extract methane can lead to contaminated well water—not just for the leasing property owner but also for the neighborhood. Fracking sometimes includes massive burn-offs called ‘well flares.’ Well flares are extremely loud and extremely bright, and neither sight nor sound abates at a property line. Fracking also requires thousands of tanker trucks and other pieces of heavy machinery, resulting in increased automobile crashes and destroyed roads. These externalities impact whole communities and regions but stem from personal decisions about leasing land rights. Without appropriate regulation, the government cannot stop people from leasing their land rights, making it hard to quell the public problems inherent in fracking. 

This unpleasant Catch-22 Jerolmack is the ‘public-private paradox.’ It gets worse. This public-private paradox feeds directly into the classic economic idea of the Tragedy of the Commons. The concept, popularized by ecologist Garrett Hardin in his 1969 essay of the same name, is used to visualize how private decisions can harm everyone, or as Hardin put it: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” 

Imagine a common field where everyone can graze their cows. If each farmer makes the personal (private) decision to add another cow to the common pasture, he reaps many rewards: more milk, more meat, more money, and a better life. At the same time, the negative impact of the extra cow gets distributed between all the grazing farmers, so it doesn’t impact him much. For each farmer, the benefits outweigh the negatives.  When each farmer thinks this way, the grazing land becomes overcrowded and collapses in ruin. If one farmer realizes the tragedy occurring and stops adding cows to the common land, he suffers disproportionately because his peers continue to overcrowd and reap the short-term benefits. Therefore, it’s in every farmer’s best interest to overcrowd the public land as much as possible or lose out entirely. At the same time, farms around him continue to prosper—that is, until overgrazing destroys the commons for everyone. 

Fracking presents the same problem. Each landowner personally benefits from leasing their land through lucrative bonuses and royalties. However, fracking degrades the quality of daily life for everyone. Now, this lessor’s neighbors have an unpleasant choice: agree to lease their land, get paid, and experience the negative consequences, or refuse to lease their land, get nothing, and still experience the adverse effects.  

Jerolmack argues that we need to take a more active stance on regulating decisions about minerals and land use, publicly and privately. If private decisions are impinging on everyone’s rights, they should not be considered private decisions anymore. If your decision to lease your land poisons your neighbor’s well and forces him to move, should you be able to make it? Jerolmack says no, and we agree. 

WORKS CITED: 

balckbart0930. “Flaring a Fracked Natural Gas Well, Kingsley, Susquehanna County, PA.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Feb. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCbnJ4ktR7U. 

FracTracker Alliance. “Here They Come Again! The Impacts of Oil and Gas Truck Traffic.” FracTracker Alliance, FracTracker Alliance Https://Www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/Wp-Content/Uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-Logo-Horizontal.png, 21 July 2020, www.fractracker.org/2014/09/truck-counts/. 

“Gas Well Flaring – Marcellus Shale Reality Tour Part 4 – Fracking.” YouTube, 18 Feb. 2012, youtu.be/LGqmwc4bGJY?t=40. 

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248. 

Jerolmack, Colin. Up to Heaven and down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. Princeton University Press, 2021. 

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government ; and a Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford University Press, 2016. 

Powell, Jim. “John Locke: Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property: Jim Powell.” Foundation for Economic Education, Foundation for Economic Education, 1 Aug. 1996, fee.org/articles/john-locke-natural-rights-to-life-liberty-and-property/. 

Vaidyanathan, Gayathri. “Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 4 Apr. 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/fracking-can-contaminate-drinking-water/. 

“What Are NYC Air Rights All About?: StreetEasy.” StreetEasy Blog, 12 Oct. 2015, streeteasy.com/blog/what-are-nyc-air-rights-all-about/. 

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