Friday, February 24, 2012

Ethics and Property Rights In Tar Sands and Mountaintop Mining

Both tar sands mining and mountain top removal in the Appalachian mountains raise ethical issues related to the very idea of land “ownership”.  

Both forms of mining are what is known a surface mining.  Instead of digging subterranean tunnels underground to access material, the earth is scraped away to the level of the mineral deposits.  There has been a worldwide increase in surface mining in the last 30  years.  Mountaintop removal mining has become the “dominant driver of land-use change in the central Appalachian ecoregion of the United States.”  A description is the practice is as follows:  “Upper elevation forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil, and explosives are used to break up rocks to access buried coal (fig. S1). Excess rock (mine “spoil”) is pushed into adjacent valleys, where it buries existing streams.” Palmer, et al. “Mountaintop Mining Consequences,” Science January 2010 (accessed 2/25/12). 

Mountaintop removal mining removes all layers of topsoil, shoving them into streambeds.  What is left after extinguishment of mining operations is rock and pulverized stone.  Additionally, the pH of the remaining land is altered so that it is inhospitable to plant life.   In effect, mountaintop removal mining permanently and forever renders what is left of the mountain incapable of further productive use, for all future generations.

The Western idea of land ownership, where one party has exclusive rights to use of land and may prevent others from any use of it, is not universal. However, even in the Western model of land ownership, there has also been an unstated but implicit understanding that that right of exclusion is not permanent.  For instance, the rule against perpetuities prevents a landowner from tying up property for “perpetuity.”   It expressly states that no interest in land is valid if it may not vest within the span of a life in being plus 21 years. Thus, historically and in general, while uses of land might encumber that land for more than a single generation, it has been an implicit policy that a landowner does not have a right to encumber land for all time forward. 

Can this, in turn, be used to assert that no land owner has a property right to turn land into an unusable wasteland for all time, forever, going forward?   What ethical principles apply, or should apply, to inform legal standards of use for property ownerships? 

Please leave a comment, below.

Photograph of mountaintop mine by J.W. Randolph, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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