Walk away from wealth?
One of the great challenges facing the world is to face the decision to leave recognized resources in the ground, resources found and made exploitable by the expenditure of considerable time and money. It is very clear that oil, coal and gas need to stay in the ground to avoid profound climatic changes. But how can this happen? Have we ever walked away from making money by digging things up just to avoid an environmental mess?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.
In the 1870s, hydraulic mining of the Auriferous Gravels in the Sierra Nevada accelerated after early success in the mid-1850s. Between advances in the technology and the consolidation of mining claims made possible by a slow period in gold mining, the industry recovered from an initial decline and began to roar forward. Drainages in entire river basins were captured and diverted, made to flow into iron pipes and through massive nozzles to blast away hills of gold-bearing gravel. The gold was captured in massive sluice boxes, but the debris was dumped into the rivers and streams below. Annual production of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per mine became common (that’s several million dollars per year per mine in today’s dollars).
The problem was that the rivers these tailings were dumped into wound by farms and towns in the Sacramento Valley below. In 1862 a large flood carried some of the early tailings down, drowning some of these lands and serving notice of the problems to come. Over the following decade and a half, farmers and miners were increasingly at loggerheads. Farmers complained that their lands became worthless; in some cases houses were buried to the eaves of the roofs. High levees were built to protect towns like Marysville from the floods of muds and sand. Miners responded that the lands that were buried were simply not worth much compared to the mines, and that the miners were first on the scene and so had a right to dump stuff in the rivers. (One mine followed through, simply buying the land that had been damaged). The boldest claim was to say that the mines now owned the lands that were deeply buried under the mine’s debris! Court cases filed by farmers failed in different ways. In one, the judge found that the farmer might not be suing the mine that actually generated the tailings burying his property; in another, the judges on appeal said that by suing all the upstream mines that the plaintiff might be burdening a mine that was not contributing to damage to his property. So while the courts agreed that the mines were causing damage, they seemed to block a way to remedy the situation. Legislative attempts to create a state agency that would try to prevent damage proved unpopular elsewhere in the state and eventually fell as being unconstitutional.
It took a lawsuit by an absentee farmer, one Edwards Woodruff, against the mines in the Yuba drainage to bring the mines to heel. In this case, Woodruff v. North Bloomfield et al., brought before federal Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer who had been a 49’er miner, two hurdles were cleared. First, the judge found that all the mines were contributing to the problem. Second, he found that there was no right the miners had to use the rivers as their private dumps. Although he didn’t ban hydraulic mining, he did ban the dumping of any tailings in the rivers.
The mines died nearly overnight; although there was more than five million ounces of gold still in the gravels (that’s a few billion dollars at today’s valuations), the cost of trying to manage the tailings was too high. That gold is still in place despite occasional attempts to get at it in different ways. The environmental damage was simply too high to allow continued extraction.
Could something like this happen today? Could a state or nation drowning because of sea level rise attributable to global warming force economic costs on fossil fuel companies that would prohibit their continued extraction of oil and coal? International legal proceedings are probably too weak for this to work, but one wonders if something akin to the multiple lawsuits filed by states against the tobacco industry might serve a similar purpose. Realistically, the science is there. Every coastal community that is flooded when the same weather 30 or 40 years ago would not have produced a flood might have a case. Communities damaged by floods or droughts might also have a case, though it is a statistical one.
Does this mean that all that effort to get at the oil and coal and gas is money down the drain? It is hard to say, but in the Sierran case not all was lost. The immense waterworks that had fed the mines were also well suited to distribute water to farmers; the recent adversaries joined hands to irrigate the parts of the valley away from rivers and streams, ushering in the era of irrigated farming that led to the immense agricultural industry in California. The waterworks were also well positioned to generate electricity, and many of the private electric generating stations in the West are beneficiaries of the hydraulic miners. It could be that the knowledge, resources and ability of oil, gas, and coal companies to move and market energy might have application in a post-fossil fuel world.
Food for thought, and a cautionary tale for any who believe that having the right to exploit a resource carries some intrinsic economic reward.