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Virginia State Sen. John Watkins withdrew a proposed bill last Thursday that would have paved the way for a vote to lift the state’s 31-year moratorium on uranium mining and begin the drafting of regulations. Due to the bill’s withdrawal, the world’s fourteenth-largest deposit of uranium – a carbon-free source of electricity – will remain untapped for at least another year.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, Inc., the company that originally proposed the mine, responded by telling the Charlottesville Daily Progress:
“We have taken a long-term approach to success and remain committed to developing this project,” said Wales. “It’s not uncommon for large pieces of legislation to take a couple sessions [to pass]. We were already looking at a four, five, six-year time period to produce regulations.”
Although it’s often stated that energy is the lifeblood of the economy, its unfortunate that how it’s produced and used is not left up to consumers and producers to determine in the market, as with other less vital goods and services. Tech for example, is far less regulated, and not surprisingly we see a lot more innovation and increases in affordability than we do with energy despite its greater effect on all our lives.
The Coles Hill uranium mine in southern Virginia is becoming another case of this. Study after study shows it can revive the struggling region and provide a big domestic source of fuel for U.S. nuclear plants. Unfortunately, Virginia politicians are still nervous about lifting the state’s 31-year-old moratorium on uranium mining. The current discussion of removing the ban has only led opponents to insist that if it is lifted, it must be replaced with the heaviest possible regulatory regime to ensure environmental safety.
But this is a false dilemma. The environment can be protected, energy can be developed, and the public can reap the rewards of both. The key is property rights.
Shifting away from an aggressive regulatory state (or, worse, a moratorium) to a system of well-defined, well-protected property rights would allow energy producers to safely tap the fourteenth-largest deposit of uranium in the world, which is currently valued at $7 billion and sits on private property, while protecting the environment.
Property rights actually ensure environmental protection, and they do so without impeding desirable resource development. In the current case, for example, should uranium miners trespass on an adjacent owner’s property in any way, including pollution, that owner already has the right to file suit against the offender. If the court finds that damage has been done, it will put a halt to the harmful activity and require the offender to compensate the property owner for the damages.
This gives energy developers the incentive to be environmentally responsible but doesn’t impede conscientious resource development or force energy producers to divert needed capital to navigate a costly, redundant, overlapping regulatory state.
Although there are plenty of regulations that are perfectly reasonable, necessary, and easily understood, energy production in the United States is consistently overregulated. According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the U.S. Department of Energy was tied for first with the Department of Transportation for issuing the most economically significant proposed rules last year, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not far behind.
Lawmakers understandably want to avoid appearing careless with the public’s well-being, so they tend to take the easy path of erring on the side of caution by creating overly tough regulations. All forms of energy development come with some level of environmental risk, however, and the question is not whether to protect the environment but how best to do so.
When energy development is more regulated than it has to be, it affects all of us by raising the prices of all goods and services and denying us technological advances that could make our lives better. That regulatory “tax” is pure waste. A strong, well-protected system of property rights, by contrast, would enable Virginia to lift the moratorium, enjoy superior wealth creation, and efficiently manage environmental risks while protecting individual liberty.