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Walking the property line: eminent domain and the U.S. oil and gas rush

Editor’s note, May 2015 Networker: Some of the first stories my parents read to me were Beatrix Potter’s fables. Did you know that several of Potter’s tales originated from letters or oral stories she shared with children she was close with? She was also an avid naturalist and conservationist. On her death, she left 4,000 acres to the National Trust.


Potter’s love for nature was told through her Arcadian fables for children she loved. Stories now told to children who love her natural world but know very little nature [1]. Many children will only know the vast majority of wilderness, wild animals, flora and fauna through stories. The clarity in which children understand justice always struck me as worth paying attention to.


Copyright: Oleg Golovnev /

How will we tell children the story of allowing 7.5 million acres (three Yellowstone’s worth) of land stripped bare by U.S. drilling? Of the next million acres? What number is too many? How far down the path of global warming have we gone, and how much further can we safely go?


Here are some other numbers:

  • 2,795 is the estimated gigatones of carbon of all known fossil fuel reserves (NOT including unconventional fossil fuel: tar sands, oil shale and methane).
  • 565 is the estimated gigatones of carbon we have left in our carbon budget if we want to say below 2 degrees Celsius warming.
  • 11 is the estimated number of years, at current fossil fuel use rates, that the estimated carbon budget (above) will be exhausted (estimate made in 2013, could be less at this point).
  • 80% is the estimated amount of all fossil fuel reserves that need to remain untouched to avoid uncontrollable warming.
  • $28.5 trillion is the estimated value of U.S. oil, coal, and natural gas reserves.
  • 30% is the value of some of the world’s stock exchanges in proven coal, oil and gas reserves.
  • $5.3 trillion is the dollars spent by governments worldwide subsidizing coal, oil, gas (higher than global public health spending).


The story these numbers tell is that we are already about ¾ of the way to the 2 degree Celsius target for limiting warming (some argue fossil fuel emissions need to peak this year if we are to have any chance at all of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of global warming [2]),  and also that oil companies are heavily invested in pumping these reserves or their value plummets. We need to reduce emissions drastically, now. But key decision-makers are ignoring that logic, and moral urgency, while more and more people depend on burning global energy reserves.


The responsibility of those reviewing proposed pipeline, fracking and mining projects are to assess what constitutes a 'public good' and a 'public benefit'. Governments have taken to using eminent domain to support the new U.S. oil and gas rush. Moving property out of the Commons and into the hands of private corporations makes clear that the current U.S. political agenda defines fossil fuel as a public good, and job and energy creation as public benefits. But the jobs and the energy are incredibly short-term (all of the oil sands in Utah would provide the rough equivalent of 2-3 years of U.S. oil consumption [3]), especially when compared to the project's ongoing and long-term costs. In the face of everything we know – about climate change, about the environmental and health impacts from these energy extraction projects, about the critical role of biodiversity in our survival – a permitting process that defines these projects as “no significant impact” is simply a lie. What exactly does that tell citizens?


It tells them that the laws put in place to protect them are negotiable, that they and the spaces they are trying to protect are disposable, and that the wellbeing of people and the planet mere decades from now is a bartering chip. Climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation—these are moral issues because they are rooted in how we define equality.


But wait! Where governments are failing to meet their responsibilities, citizens are stepping up in countless brave ways. Where decision makers are taking baffling policy and economic stances in the face of increasingly dire warnings, citizens are serving the role of witness and of innovators. In direct response to the political battle over climate (in)action, citizens are taking action. Stories, images, data, dreaming, blockading, improvising—these are gaining traction as another kind of political power.


Executive Director Carolyn Raffensperger has drafted Some Legal Principles for Mining, Fracking, and Pipelines: Defending our Communities and Future Generations to provide a different frame around the facts of continued production.


In this May 2015 Issue of The Networker, Carolyn Raffensperger, for the Science & Environmental Health Network and the Women's Congress for Future Generations, offers a set of  Legal Principles to serve as one basis for organizing around pipelines, fracking and mining.


Why have legal principles? The intent of these principles is to provide common talking points, a common legal agenda, and an entry point for organizing.


We invite you to:

Read and Sign On to these Legal Principles.

Take the Legal Principles into your community, and use them in your organizing


As Raffensperger envisions them, "a clear articulation of legal principles challenges existing assumptions in the public square about the role of government. If government agencies assume their primary responsibility is to grow the economy, which is indoctrinated as limitless, they are less likely to take precautionary action. However, if they know that their responsibility is to serve as a trustee of the Commons such as water, land, and biodiversity then they are more likely to protect our shared resources. They also give common language to all the groups arising to resist threats to their communities."


The resounding message across the country is No Eminent Domain for Private Gain. Future emissions must be kept within a precautionary, science-based, and finite global carbon budget. The U.S. has a moral obligation to create binding actions to meet large domestic emissions reductions targets and incentivize low carbon economies elsewhere. The legal principles are offerings in the face of this U.S. oil and gas boom, as one basis for organizing against projects and pathways that confound wealth with debt, in defense of the right to a life-sustaining, community-nourishing, and dignity-enhancing ecological Commons is a fundamental human right of present and future generations [4].


One of the reasons I love speculative storytelling like Beatrix Potter’s is because it asks “what if?” What if we change what's real or possible? I also love the term because it’s mercurial; we are always pushing the edges of what is possible.


Yours, Kaitlin Butler Program Director


“This future I do not accept it. Because an error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. We can redirect this.”

-Prince Ea, “Dear Future Generations: Sorry

[1] See also: World Wildlife Foundation (September 2014). Living Planet Report 2014. Available online:

[2] The fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in 2007, warned that global emissions would need to peak by 2015 to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming. For the IPCC Climate Change Synthesis Report (2007). See:

The IPCC's Climate Change 2014 Synthesis reports slightly more conservative estimates, at about 2/3 of the 2900 GtCO2 that would limit warming to less than 2°C (relative to the period 1861-1880) with a probability of >66%: "Multi-model results show that limiting total human-induced warming to less than 2°C ... would require cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources since 1870 to remain below about 2900 GtCO2...About 1900 GtCO2 had already been emitted by 2011." Pg. 10, from: IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp. Available online:

For some additional commentary on the 2°C target, see:

Suzanne Jacobs (May 7, 2015). "Dear Climate Scientists: Just Tell it to Us Straight Please." Grist. Available:

Katherine Bagley (Feb 14, 2013). "The Most Influential Climate Science Paper Remains Unknown to Most People." InsideClimate News. Available:

Bill McKibben (July 19, 2012). "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." Rolling Stone Magazine. Available online:

[3] For tar sand count in Utah, see for example:

For U.S. Oil consumption, see for example:

[4]  The Commons, not private property or capital, are the real foundation of the economy and all commoners have an equal right to shared resources. The commonwealth and health must be protected from harm or exploitation. It is the obligation of government to care for the Commons and pass them on unimpaired to future generations. If the Commons are damaged, the polluter, not the commoners, pays.