Cooperation between Bird-Watchers and Hot-Rodders

Dwight Lee writes of cooperation between antagonists, fostered by private ownership:

[M]ost members of the Audubon Society surely see the large sport utility vehicles and high-powered cars encouraged by abundant petroleum supplies as environmentally harmful. That perception, along with the environmental risks associated with oil recovery, helps explain why the Audubon Society vehemently opposes drilling for oil in the ANWR as well as in the continental shelves in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico. Although oil companies promise to take extraordinary precautions to prevent oil spills when drilling in these areas, the Audubon Society’s position is no off-shore drilling, none. One might expect to find Audubon Society members completely unsympathetic with hot-rodding enthusiasts, NASCAR racing fans, and drivers of Chevy Suburbans. Yet, as we have seen, by allowing drilling for gas and oil in the Rainey Sanctuary, the society is accommodating the interests of those with gas-guzzling lifestyles, risking the “integrity” of its prized wildlife sanctuary to make more gasoline available to those whose energy consumption it verbally condemns as excessive.

The incentives provided by private property and market prices not only motivate the Audubon Society to cooperate with NASCAR racing fans, but also motivate those racing enthusiasts to cooperate with the Audubon Society. Imagine the reaction you would get if you went to a stock-car race and tried to convince the spectators to skip the race and go bird-watching instead. Be prepared for some beer bottles tossed your way. Yet by purchasing tickets to their favorite sport, racing fans contribute to the purchase of gasoline that allows the Audubon Society to obtain additional wildlife habitat and to promote bird-watching. Many members of the Audubon Society may feel contempt for racing fans, and most racing fans may laugh at bird-watchers, but because of private property and market prices, they nevertheless act to promote one another’s interests.

From Dwight Lee, “To Drill or Not to Drill: Let the Environmentalists Decide,” The Independent Review, Fall 2001.

About the time Lee was writing his article the last of the oil and gas leases on the Rainey preserve expired and the Audubon Society banned further oil and gas activity at the site. A few years later, in 2008, as oil and gas prices were reaching new heights, oil and gas companies came calling and Audubon considered leasing development rights again.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in January 2010, oil and gas surrounded the preserve, and Audubon thought engaging with developers might be better than resistance. Audubon’s Paul Kemp said, “There’s no way of stopping the development of oil and gas out here. A lease gives us some ability to control things.”

Audubon is working with neighboring landowners on a policy to govern oil and gas development around the sanctuary. New directional drilling tools, for example, may enable firms to tap fuel beneath the sanctuary without actually setting foot on the property. In that case, Audubon may arrange a profit-sharing arrangement with neighbors that host the equipment used to reach the sanctuary’s fields.

“We’re talking about ways we can join forces to improve the environmental protections for not just our lands, but our neighbors’ land while oil and gas activity goes on,” Kemp said. “Just forswearing any involvement is really not all that effective in protecting our property.”

Randal Moertle, one of the consultants working with Audubon, believes oil and gas development can coexist with a healthy marsh. But for that to happen, landowners would have to actively monitor their properties, he said.

“The federal regulatory and state regulatory agencies are ill equipped to monitor surface operations by an oil company on private property,” said Moertle. “There are not enough people to police what’s going on.”

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in April 2010, apparently brought development efforts at the Rainey Sanctuary to a halt. This particular example of cooperation — long the go-to example of free market environmentalists (see this article from 1981, this reflection on the article from 2010, and this short piece from Reason from 2015) — is no longer active.

Traces of the cooperation between bird-watchers and hot-rodders live on, however, reflected in the larger size of the preserve today. Audubon used some of the millions of hot-rodder dollars it earned to buy more property and expand its conservation-minded influence over Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

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