Leiden Law Blog

Exploiting shale gas: a risky gamble

Exploiting shale gas: a risky gamble

This year the media has given a lot of attention to the exploitation of shale gas. I thought the many well-founded protests – including a manifesto signed in June by 55 Dutch professors – were gaining some ground. However Henk Kamp, the Dutch Minister for Economic Affairs, publicly stated at the end of August that he is in favour of this exploitation. Reading the report by the Bureau Witteveen + Bos had convinced him that there is little chance of our drinking water becoming polluted, that it probably won’t give rise to serious earthquakes, and that the risks involved are controllable. But, significantly, his rationally weighed arguments only gave rise to more protests – particularly in Boxtel, the town where the first test drillings in 2014 have been planned. Who is making the most sense here?

Economic thinking

It is clear – and from his position understandable perhaps – that Kamp primarily thought of the economic benefits that the exploitation would bring to the Netherlands as a whole. It’s a pity though that economic thinking usually also turns out to be short-term thinking. He suggests that the exploitation of shale gas will add another 10 to 15 years to our national gas supply, apparently believing this to be quite a long period of time.
I fear that with regard to the risks involved, Kamp has also not looked much further than 15 years ahead. Calling the risks controllable is not very reassuring. For centuries we have believed ourselves to be in control of our exploitative activities, and in retrospect we can witness how grossly mistaken we have been. 

Ignoring evidence

In fact 15 years IS a long time if this means that the exploitation of environmentally-friendly energies, such as wind, water and sun energy, won’t be taken very seriously for at least another decade; if it means that some politicians willfully allow themselves to continue on the old road of damaging and polluting the environment. Now that we have been warned for at least 50 years – from Rachel Carson in the 1960s to Al Gore in more recent times – I would think there is hardly anybody left who is still unaware of the environmental damage and the resulting weather changes affecting us all. In this regard it’s obvious that here in ‘the Low Countries’ we actually have to take extra care to prevent the land from getting any lower!

The protests

I think the protests of the people in towns like Boxtel must also be seen in this light. Essentially they have stopped trusting politicians who more or less ignore the environment and put the focus primarily and blindly on economic benefits. Their fear of polluted drinking water and earthquakes is really the tip of the much deeper feeling that we – a fast growing part of the population – have to prevent further maltreatment of planet earth as much as we can. The protests show a human concern for a viable future that extends beyond a mere 15 years – and beyond the Dutch borders too.

Property rights and the need for change

The matter at hand is closely linked to the curious fact that we human beings can actually own the deeper layers of our earth. By law, an owner has the right to exploit the resources on his property, and there’s no sign that these property rights are going to change in the near future. And it’s not likely either that we could create a law to protect these resources. Therefore it is high time that owners – like the Dutch state – stop believing that planet earth merely consists of dead, exploitable matter, and start considering the fact that it might after all be a large living organism, well capable of responding powerfully to ongoing maltreatment!

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