Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Untangling the PennEast Pipeline Rights Conundrum

This is my latest installment in my coverage of PennEast Pipeline company’s proposed natural gas pipeline through Western Hunterdon County, and the unholy alliance of NIMBYs and Environmentalists' jihad on fossil pipelines to stop it.

In a letter published in the Hunterdon County Democrat—Make Pipeline Safe—Emma Angele Switzler wrote:

At issue are some of the most fundamental rights of citizens - the right to own property, the right to clean water and the right to protect natural environments.

Switzler seems primarily concerned about her’s and others’ land being included in the easement through which the pipeline would run. Once approved, Switzler notes, “PennEast can exercise eminent domain.” This is of course a valid objection to the pipeline. Unfortunately, she goes beyond a right to her own property, thus muddying and undercutting her message by demanding that others’ rights be violated.

As is usually the case with pipeline opponents, Switzler’s focus is one-sided, citing real or alleged negatives while ignoring positives of pipelines.

I left these comments, edited for clarity:

“At issue are some of the most fundamental rights of citizens.”

This is true. But this begs the questions: What are, and are not, rights? How do rights apply to the PennEast pipeline?

Rights are moral principles derived from observable, factual requirements of human nature. Rights sanction and guarantee the individual’s freedom to act toward the pursuit and achievement of the personal values that he judges necessary for the support and furtherance his life, and are unalienable so long as one’s actions do not violate the same rights of others. Rights are not an automatic claim on products or services that others must provide; nor the right to stop others from pursuing their values; nor the right to act on any whim one might feel. Fundamentally, rights include the freedom to work and trade. Productive work—reason-guided physical labor—is the only means of supporting one’s life. The right to life is the base of all rights.

There is an old saying about rights: “Your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins.” You have a right to act on your own judgement, so long as your actions don’t violate the same rights of others by physically harming another person or his property.

In practice, determining where one person’s rights end and another’s nose begins can be complex. In the case of projects like the pipeline, the issue is not the gas companies versus citizens. Gas companies, like all businesses and corporations, are associations of citizens coordinated toward some productive purpose—citizens exercising their fundamental rights to earn a living. The challenge; to determine the line between where the pipeline builders’ rights to earn a living by producing a product and trading with willing customers ends and the rights of landowners to their property and to be safe from undue dangers imposed by the PennEast project begins.

Hence, there is a “right to own property,” but only property that you have worked for and earned.
There is no “right to protect natural environments” on land that is not yours. As human beings are part of nature, productive work necessarily involves acting in and upon nature, including transforming the natural environment to suit human needs. You may fancy “the whole of Hunterdon County as my backyard,” but in fact your yard ends at your property line, beyond which others’ noses begin. To say one has a “right to protect natural environments” whenever and wherever he pleases amounts to claiming the right to stop others from making a living, in violation of their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property. If every citizen had the “right to protect natural environments”, free markets and peaceful coexistence would be impossible, and civilization ultimately could not survive.

Likewise, there is no “right to clean water.” Clean water does not happen in nature. Clean water must be produced by human work. Water must be harvested from nature; properly stored so it is available on demand; processed for purification in treatment plants; delivered to our taps through elaborate delivery systems consisting of pipes, pumps, wells, etc; all of which requires plentiful, reliable energy (which makes the NJ-wide, knee-jerk opposition to pipelines, which deliver the energy clean water requires, bizarre and counter-productive). No one has a fundamental right to clean water, only a right to the water they acquire through their own work and payment to producers. Of course, rational, objective laws against pollution of groundwater, rivers, and streams—laws that balance risks and benefits within the context of current technologies—should be enforced, along with laws requiring cleanup and restitution by polluters to victims of pollution (pollution defined as that which objectively harms human beings, not that which merely alters the natural state). No one has the right to pollute property he doesn't own.

Rights are the fundamental issue, so here’s the basis for a resolution to the issue regarding "most fundamental rights of citizens". PennEast and its employees have a right to earn money by building and operating the pipeline, but only in voluntary agreement with landowners along the route. Private property owners in the path of the proposed pipeline have a right not to have the pipeline cross their property without their consent. As I’ve argued before, eminent domain “contradicts every fundamental premise of America” and is never justified. The threat of eminent domain is one of the few valid reasons for opposing the pipeline, in my view. PennEast can hugely advance its case by publicly renouncing the use of eminent domain, even if approval by FERC grants it that “right.” If it did, it would be doing the right thing because the use or threat of eminent domain is, as this letter states, a bully tactic. PennEast also has the moral responsibility, and the government the legal responsibility, to ensure that the most state-of-the-art safety technologies are employed. Nearby residents have no reasonable expectation of 100% safety guarantees, but do have the right to expect it to be as safe as reasonably possible.

Done right—i.e., installed consistent with common sense technologically and economically feasible environmental, safety, and anti-pollution policies, and due respect for property rights—pipelines do not bring doom. They deliver the energy of life, and we should welcome them. Rather than fight to stop them, we should be debating the best, most rights-respecting way to get them done.

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