Freedom from endangerment

In this column, we’re going to discuss the freedom from endangerment.

It is vital for human well-being that individuals are protected from dangers to their air, water, sanitation, and safety. Energy production and use, including fossil fuel production and use, can endanger people in all kinds of ways if done badly—from bad burning processes, to waste that’s handled improperly, to oil rigs going out of control, to gas lines exploding.

It’s really important that we have policies to protect us from such dangers. How to do this is not obvious, but the key is to always think about what’s best for human flourishing.

Personally, I think there are three keys to a good policy that protects the freedom from endangerment. A good policy is one that establishes standards of health and safety that are:

  1. reasonable and equitable
  2. scientifically verifiable
  3. economically desirable

Reasonable

What do I mean by reasonable? When talking about protecting health and safety from certain kinds of risks, we have to acknowledge that every human action and technology carries risks and dangers. Nature itself carries risks and dangers.

We can’t have a policy that demands actions and technologies be totally free of risks and dangers, because then we would not be able to do anything, or we would just keep doing the same old things, ignoring that they also have risks because we’re used to those risks.

Instead, we need standards that protect us without overprotecting us to the point where they do harm.

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For example, think of the first people to use fire. They were exposing themselves and their family to a certain amount of smoke—much more than modern power plants do, for sure. Now, should they have not used fire because of the smoke? No. Fire was so vital to their lives that it would have been harmful to their health and safety not to have the fire. If there had been a policy banning the use of fire because of the smoke, that would have been an example of overprotecting themselves to the point of harm.

By the same token, we can’t have standards for energy risks or energy safety that would prevent people from using energy. That’s what I mean by a policy having to be reasonable: protecting without overprotecting.

Equitable

This goes right along with equitable, or fair and impartial.

We want to be equitable and we don’t want to discriminate against some industries or some forms of energy, holding them to impossibly high risk and endangerment standards. Often, however, safety standards aren’t equitable because people tend to see new and unfamiliar things as riskier than old things.

Take hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for example. This is a technology that has been around a long time, but the term fracking wasn’t introduced into common usage until around 2010. People think of it as very risky even though it’s been done very safely for a long time. They worry about the risk of fracking but not about the risk of driving, which is an incomparably greater risk than fracking.

Unfortunately, it is very common to treat unpopular industries such as the oil and gas industry this way. They get held to completely different standards than more popular industries. Take the issue of noise. What you’ll find is that the amount of noise accepted from janitors, construction workers, and movie theaters is often far greater than that of a fracking job. But people complain that their rights are being violated by the noise from the fracking job and not by the noise from these other activities. That’s clearly non-equitable.

It’s important when we hear talk of risk and danger that we’re clear on whether there is actually an unreasonable amount of risk in a given area, or whether we’re holding some industry or activity to a higher standard than other comparable industries or activities.

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