The best way to protect the environment isn’t always obvious

Our friend Brian Seasholes of the Reason Foundation has an article on on one of the oft overlooked environmental benefits of fracking: preserving open space as habitat for wildlife. He ends the article with a point that applies far beyond fracking and highlights one of the most important shortcomings in most environmental law.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. - Milton FriedmanLife involves trade-offs, and decisions often have unintended consequences.

As Milton Friedman famously put it: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Although the costs of public policies may not always be obvious, they’re there if you look hard enough.

Fracking is a good example of that fact. Although environmentalists often decry fracking for potential impacts to groundwater–claims for which an EPA study found very little support–it has several demonstrable environmental (not to mention economic) benefits. By lowering the cost of natural gas, it has shifted energy production to a fuel that produces lower emissions of pollutants and carbon dioxide. It also, as Brian documents, provides the financial means for struggling farmers, ranchers, and other rural property owners to maintain their property as open space and habitat for wildlife.

This isn’t unique to fracking, of course. Most environmental questions–whether special interest groups want to admit it or not–involve trade-offs. And environmental policies often have unintended consequences, especially when the trade-offs aren’t candidly acknowledged and considered.

Protecting species, for instance, can be quite costly, by reducing economic development, restricting people’s property rights, and impacting communities in profound ways. How we protect endangered species has a huge impact on these trade-offs and the unintended consequences.

The command-and-control approach of the Endangered Species Act’s strict take prohibition has immense costs. It unfairly deprives property owners of their rights to use their land without compensation. It has made it more difficult for communities to protect playgrounds, airports, and cemeteries from species’ maleffects. And it threatens innocent people with jail time if they accidentally run afoul of the broad prohibition by, for instance, getting too near a protected animal or “capturing” it to protect it from a predator.

By failing to account for these trade-offs, the Endangered Species Act also has severe unintended consequences. It places immense burdens on–in other words, punishes–property owners who have maintained their land in a condition that is suitable habitat for disappearing species. Facing such strong disincentives, why would property owners pursue the thankless task of preserving habitat on their lands? It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that this could be why less than 2% of listed species have recovered in the 40 years since the Endangered Species Act was enacted.

Perhaps if we candidly acknowledged these trade-offs, we could improve the Endangered Species Act to make it both less burdensome for property owners and more effective at preserving species. There have been a few glimmers of hope recently, as federal agencies have shown a willingness to work with states and private property owners to develop innovative strategies to protect species without all of the Endangered Species Act’s downsides. PLF has filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the reliance on these efforts. But, invariably, whenever anyone suggests common sense reforms, environmental special interests immediately accuse them of trying to “gut” the Endangered Species Act. That’s a shame, both for property owners and endangered species.