Alexander Lee is assistant professor of philosophy at Alaska Pacific University and secretary of the International Society for Environmental Ethics. Benjamin Hale is associate professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Alex Hamilton is a graduate student in the environmental studies program and law school at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Pro-development politicians have, in the past year, sought to open up Arctic oil reserves, expand oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, build long-sought pipelines, and grant access to old growth timber resources. Each time, the burden falls upon conservationists to justify why industry should not log, dam, drill, mine, or harvest, rather than on developers to demonstrate why they should. This is backward.
The problem starts with public lands leasing: Suppose, for instance, that an oil company intends to drill on a piece of public land. So long as the area is not federally protected, as is the case with national parks, for example, and is offered for leasing by federal land managers (often at the prompting of industry), then the oil company simply needs to walk through the appropriate regulatory hoops. The road to extraction might be stymied by an endangered species, cultural artifact, wilderness, or waterway, but those roadblocks serve to justify why the oil company shouldn’t drill, not why the public needs that oil in the first place.
Why is the burden on conservationists to defend nature rather than on the fossil fuel industry to justify its degradation? Prioritizing development as a primary objective of land management may have made sense at a time when non-renewable resources were essential to promoting the public good, but in the 21st century we have a burgeoning alternative energy sector, and our energy security, economy, and environment demand that we do better.
This upside-down burden of proof is not only undemocratic, it also generates major economic inefficiencies: Taxpayers wind up subsidizing fossil fuels by granting priority access to land that isn’t made so easily available to wind, solar, and other competing renewable industries.
For example, pro-oil politicians continue to push for Arctic oil, even though former President Trump’s January auction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was practically a bust: What congressional Republicans and Alaska state officials had touted as drawing billions of dollars brought taxpayers only $7 million.
Governor Mike Dunleavy and U.S. Representative Don Young of Alaska, Trump officials, and the oil lobby — as well as a litany of politically motivated actors over the past 60 years — have placed the burden of proof on conservationists: How could ANWR possibly be worth more when protected, they ask, than when converted into oil dollars? It’s a battle of profit versus values, and so the conservation community can never win outright. The best that conservationists can hope for is to hold the line against additional degradation or development. A fair fight would require oil interests to demonstrate why their conversion of nature into dollars is a good idea.
Alaska currently only produces about 4 percent of U.S. crude oil. The government estimates that, at best, ANWR oil drilling would directly employ only 750 people. Meanwhile, nearly 200,000 animals in the Porcupine caribou herd migrate across the refuge. The Indigenous Gwich’in people call this coastal plain the “sacred place where life begins.” Or, as paraphrased by pro-oil former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, “a sacred place, or whatever.”
The call for drilling in the ANWR began without even knowing what oil, if any, might lay beneath this arctic home to muskoxen, caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverine, lynx, and many more. This is akin to insisting that homeowners demonstrate why strangers should not be permitted to take up residence in their guest room, or why those strangers shouldn’t dig holes in the backyard. But an oil company can’t just build a derrick in your backyard any more than you can waltz down the Grand Canyon and build a house. They would need a good reason to do this — a reason that meets the scrutiny of all affected. Where are the good reasons for drilling in the ANWR, or the Gulf of Mexico, or other public lands for that matter?
In protest of the Dakota Access pipeline, thousands of people lined up, arm in arm, at Standing Rock shouting that Indigenous land matters. Activists rightly assumed that unless they defended the local community, waterway, environment, and Indigenous sovereignty, pipeline production would go on. But moral accountability and procedural justice demand that the reasons behind the proposed action be open to scrutiny from the moral community. This would require that pipeline developers make the case for why the pipeline was worth supplanting people and destroying the planet, and not put the onus on the average citizens who stand in front of bulldozers in defense of themselves and the environment.
This should be the framework for other debates, from the Keystone XL pipeline, to offshore drilling in California, to fracking for natural gas in Colorado.
The Biden administration has already created an opportunity to change where the burden of justification lies. In its first week, the administration took the step of issuing an executive order requiring review of all federal oil leases in the Arctic. Biden has taken the second step, too: a separate executive order directs the Interior Department to pause all new oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore waters.
The third step will be the most important: getting the government out of the oil business by reforming federal land use policies. Fossil fuel leasing should be presumed unnecessary unless the extraction is itself justified. What exactly counts as “justification” is a determination for federal agencies, and requires public input and consideration of myriad public values — not, as the Biden administration recognizes, strictly a monetary cost-benefit analysis. Extractive industries should have to present a compelling case that a given project is both in the public interest and not in conflict with other interests.
This alone will do much of the work of transitioning toward a regenerative economy and sustainable future: In the face of climate change and cheap renewable energy, justifying fossil fuel extraction will only become more difficult.
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