Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Modest Proposal: Drill-Ban Towns Could Just Ask Folks to Vote with Their Square Feet

I realize this idea will never fly.  But it would be much fairer than the current confiscatory state of affairs regarding shale gas in New York, where the winners don't even bother seeking to meet the losers half-way.

Rather than put in a temporary moratorium or permanent ban on drilling, New York townships could simply rent the underlying mineral rights — and then decline to use them.  It's not a solution that relies on blunt regulation, or fiat, but on compromise and horse-trading.

It's very similar to a public agency, or an environmentally minded group, buying development rights, sometimes also known as conservation easements.  These involve willing sellers, willing buyers, and prices they meet at someplace in the middle.

In New York, towns wouldn't have to lease everything.  Just a tad above 40%, on average, crazy-quilted across the landscape, would prevent any serious operator from qualifying for a state permit for anything other than an old-school vertical well.

Town leaders could just sit down with the grassroots landowner coalitions and negotiate the price on a 5- or 10-year model lease:  Joe and Josephine Landowner, Lessor, to Town of Freakout, Lessee.  And then the town would have to pay up, of course.  And, yes, you'd have to do it all over again in five or ten years, if the townspeople haven't come around to any kind of New Religion in the meanwhile.

To motivate the marketplace, a town could run it as a first-come, first-serve, limited-time-offer kind of thing — at least until its quota is reached, at which point they could close up the lease-buying shop, and the latecomers lose their chances.

Put the word out what the standing offer is, buy some lunch for a few otherwise idle notaries public, and schedule a couple signings en masse.  Possibly sync these events up with a chicken barbecue or something, and put on some heartfelt presentations in the school auditorium themed "Peace in Our Time."

People with a lot of land effectively get a discount, or possibly even a rebate, on their land taxes.  Villagers and small lot holders make up the difference.  It's an end to the bully's free lunch of getting away with just pushing people around.

Ever-mistrustful anti's would be free to boycott the proceedings by either relying instead upon their tallies of acreage that's already pledged to never (again) be put under lease.  Or by leasing all their land, for a nominal price, and for the same no-drill purpose, to an organization they feel confident will never do anything with those rights.

Vote with your square feet.

Either way, you add it all up, and you could put a rough pricetag on the preliminary costs of a community's decision to decline the opportunity shale gas poses — at least within the current climate of nagging skepticism that New York will ever be able to get its act together on this score.

The point is these bans cost something.  For those landowners willing to turn down such an opportunity, and to eat those costs on principle, I see it as a matter of private rights and choice, and I cannot object. 

But for those who demand to be compensated for something owned — something that's essentially being confiscated from them by popular will — show them the money.  To me, it's just another side to the coin of "environmental justice."

Then put the whole lease plan to a referendum, including the final costs.  If the townsfolk start back-peddling when the final bill comes due, well, then, that should tell you something about the depth of their current mania.

All this is the same kind of tough choice anybody faces in any kind of legitimate marketplace:  If there's no cost to the proponent, demand is unlimited, but, if there's skin in the game — well, then, not so much.

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