Freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and a civil society have made America exceptional. But without energy—secure and affordable energy—many of our great accomplishments would not have been possible.
Unfortunately, our already tenuous energy security is being threatened and diminished by policies emanating from Washington. That need not be the case, and conservatives can meet the challenges we face by applying important principles of a free society to natural resource and energy policies.
Almost every thoughtful person knows that reliable and affordable energy is essential to have a healthy economy that creates jobs and to make everyday life possible. Hurricane Irene brought this home dramatically, as families in the Eastern part of the country worried about the storm’s effects on electrical power, food supplies, businesses, and hospitals. Irene made those in its path more conscious of something we often take for granted.
Although the storm has passed, damage to our energy security continues as Washington bureaucrats seek to constrict energy use, obstruct its development, and mandate just what kind we use without consideration of how efficient it is.
The reality is that we need more reliable and affordable energy, and there are three principles that can help us get it.
First, we need to clearly state and stick by the principle that people are our most valuable resource. Natural resources and energy policies should be judged first and foremost on how good they are for people. Meeting human needs should be paramount. This is because we value people’s well-being above other measures such as carbon emissions or the population of a rare insect and because we recognize that the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of a free people hold the keys to meeting our challenges.
Americans have always been able to meet our energy challenges, discovering ways to find, extract, develop, and market energy resources. Impediments aside, Americans will continue to meet our needs today and allow for other generations to enjoy our natural resources as well.
It was a private visionary, not the Department of Energy, who combined existing technologies —horizontal drilling and fracking—to dramatically increase the amount of natural gas we may now be able to tap.
Green extremists and their Washington bureaucratic allies are trying to stop us from harnessing this energy, warning of irreparable environmental harm. The truth is that we can tap energy sources while being good stewards of the air, water, and other resources that make up our environment.
Second, we need environmental policies that are site- and situation-specific. What works for the people of Oklahoma or Alaska may not work elsewhere. The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal minders don’t always know best, but the regulators do hold many big sticks. Congress should require them to leave to the states as much of the processes overseeing energy resource development as is possible and right.
State officials can set standards that allow energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas to be tapped responsibly and cost-effectively. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, and Colorado are among states with known energy resources that could be tapped more quickly with state and local officials, rather than Washington bureaucrats, overseeing site- and situation-specific regulation.
Third, we need to recognize that the most promising opportunities for improving our environment are not in government ownership and regulation, but in extending the protection of private property and unleashing the creative powers of the free markets.
Owners of land with energy resources have the incentive to develop energy using the most effective technologies. If they are also responsible for any real pollution they create, free-market competition will spur technologies that reduce negative impacts to keep down development costs.
Where energy sources are held on government property, it gets trickier. The government owns about a third of the nation’s land and most of the ocean areas where energy resources could be tapped. The permit process and other regulatory hurdles have been used to stymie energy development on the federal estate, all of it treated like “leave only footprints” national parks.
Yet the hundreds of millions of acres held by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service or in the outer continental shelf were never meant to be shut off like a national park.
This needs to be acknowledged, and the size of the federal estate should be limited. We need to establish means of extending rights that will encourage rather than discourage responsible tapping of national energy resources. Locking up these resources is not good stewardship and not in the best interests of Americans.
Free markets, protection of property rights, site- and situation-specific oversight, and keeping people first are principles that can help us secure affordable and reliable energy supplies.
Becky Norton Dunlop, a former secretary of natural resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, is now vice president for external relations at The Heritage Foundation.
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