Pale Rider is one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies. One of its central themes revolves around classic property rights concepts in a community of miners that includes a number of small pan miners and a family that has built a larger, hydraulic mining operation that essentially uses pressurized water to blast rock hillsides apart and release the valuable gold therein. This hydraulic mining harms the mining potential of the downstream pan miners, reducing the value of their property. It’s a vivid example of property rights and Coase’s point about the reciprocal nature of costs when the actions of community members are interdependent. Of course, as director Eastwood heightened the dramatic conflict by making the hydraulic mining family greedy and mendacious, but that’s not necessary for there to be an underlying property rights conflict.
Pale Rider came to my mind yesterday afternoon, when I happened on an interview with Daniel Yergin on Fox Business. The interviewer asked him about fracking as a “new” technology and the US prospects for energy independence (oh, how I wish people would just get over that), and he pointed out that fracking is being used both for natural gas and for “tight oil” (which all KP readers know thanks to Mike, but I think a lot of people don’t). But Yergin also corrected her assertion that fracking is a new technology, mentioning very briefly that this technique in one form or another has existed for a long time. Fracking as we know it has been around for decades, but almost as soon as Evangelista Torricelli discovered atmospheric pressure and the vacuum in 1643, people started exploring using pressurized fluids to do work that they and their animals could not. In the 19th century that included hydraulic mining to get at subsurface mineral deposits.
Yergin’s remark triggered my Pale Rider memory, and the economic parallels between the issues in using hydraulic mining in Pale Rider and hydraulic fracturing today are strong — conflicts over the use of resources with ill-defined property rights, environmental impact, changes in potential profitability of using resources in different ways, etc. In particular, conflicts arise about the quantity of water used and water quality post-fracking. Again, thanks to Mike I think we understand those issues well.
I’ve been wondering about the next step in the chain of Coasian logic: if property rights and legal liability are defined so that energy companies are liable for harms they create (water scarcity or contamination), does that induce harm-reducing innovation? In the abstract, theory suggests that such innovations would fall into the two categories, waterless fracking and water remediation and purification.
And it is happening, although in its infancy and still more expensive than using water. Consider this Forbes article from Erica Gies about innovations in waterless fracking. The relative value of such innovations is going to be highest in places like Texas, as she observes:
Water shortages and conflicts are on the rise due to increasing population and climate change–caused fluctuations in precipitation that are making drought more frequent and severe in some places.
One of those places is Texas, where this summer’s mega-drought invoked comparisons with the 1930s Dust Bowl, as ranchers sold their emaciated animals for a song and agricultural losses soared to more than $5 billion.
As a result, gas industry projects in Texas had to scale back, as energy producers scrambled to find sufficient water.
She then points to a couple of different approaches being developed — liquified (again note the role of atmospheric pressure!) propane gel injected instead of water and which may be reusable, and a vapor “foam” that may reduce water use by 95 percent. I think her conclusion accurately captures the tradeoffs involved, and the role that innovation can play in reducing harms from fracking:
These technologies are in their infancy, and many questions about efficacy, impacts, and cost remain to be answered before they could move into widespread use. And of course, reducing water consumption does not mitigate concerns about prolonging our reliance on fossil fuels or the inherently ugly nature of extractive industry, especially for local neighbors.
But for the gas companies, although such technologies are currently more expensive than water, they offer the promise of reducing myriad headaches and expenses, including costs for hauling water and sand, repairing roads damaged by heavy truck use, and managing water pollution, including “produced” water disposal.
Gies wrote earlier in the year about innovations in water cleaning and business opportunities for wastewater treatment companies, providing concise background on the use of water in fracking. I also read an article last week (that I can’t locate now) about the potential to use technologies developed for oil spill cleanup to clean fracking water. Innovation changes some of the tradeoffs involved in fracking.