Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sean Lennon's NY Times OP-ED About The Environmental Costs of Fracking

Sean Lennon may not remember the one time we were 10 feet from each other.  I was a young Asst. Professor at Columbia and he was an undergraduate there sitting on the Low Library steps being cool.   I spotted him and gawked and then kept walking.  Today, we were reunited as I read his piece about rural environmentalism.  We have some things in common but surprisingly we disagree on some issues.

A quote:

"In the late ’70s, when Manhattanites like Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger were turning Montauk and East Hampton into an epicurean Shangri-La for the Studio 54 crowd, my parents, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, were looking to become amateur dairy farmers. My first introduction to a cow was being taught how to milk it by hand. I’ll never forget the realization that fresh milk could be so much sweeter than what we bought in grocery stores. Although I was rarely able to persuade my schoolmates to leave Long Island for what seemed to them an unreasonably rural escapade, I was lucky enough to experience trout fishing instead of tennis lessons, swimming holes instead of swimming pools and campfires instead of cable television."

"Natural gas is clean, and cigarettes are healthy — talk about disinformation. To try to counteract this, my mother and I have started a group called Artists Against Fracking."

So, his piece really focuses on his opposition to fracking and the extraction of natural gas.  

One mildly interesting issue here is to quantify how large are the social costs of pursuing natural gas and how do these social costs vary across locations? Suppose that there is a natural gas deposit in a geographical area where few people live.  Does this low population density reduce the likelihood of toxics exposure?

To quote young Lennon:

"Don’t be fooled. Fracking for shale gas is in truth dirty energy. It inevitably leaks toxic chemicals into the air and water."

But, to an economist the question is; "how many people are exposed to this and how much are they willing to pay to not be exposed to this activity?"   The Coase theorem would say that the total negative externality from this resource extraction will be low in less populated areas where per-capita incomes are lower.  A GIS analysis could identify such areas.

If fracking creates jobs for low income individuals then such communities may be willing to pay to allow fracking to take place there.