Updated: May 21, 2014 at 10:32 am
As activists battled a make-believe threat of eminent domain abuse in Colorado Springs, a real and active threat went seemingly unnoticed by the ever-vigilant defenders of property rights. If they're looking for a fight, we implore them to redirect their passions toward a genuine assault on liberty that stands to deprive Coloradans of income needed for food, shelter and clothing.
The Gazette's editorial board discussed the dilemma with Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was a guest at Tuesday's meeting. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, talked about 12 proposed ballot measures that ask voters to curtail oil and gas production through enhanced local control, excessive setbacks and other government-imposed regulations. He has tried in vain to work a compromise among energy producers and those who would quash property rights.
Hickenlooper described a typical conflict in which residential property owners or renters enjoy the view of a neighbor's vacant lot. The land and minerals beneath it are private property owned by individuals with constitutionally protected rights to make reasonable use of it all. The surface owner can benefit by leasing space for exploration and production. The mineral owner can benefit by extracting and selling fuel.
Drilling operations are temporarily disruptive, much like construction sites. They leave behind wellheads so unobtrusive they can hide in bushes or miniature Tuff Sheds. Yet, contrived environmental threats, fear of disasters and nuisance complaints threaten the industry. If concerns of this nature weighed so heavily in the past, we might not have power lines, freeways or train tracks.
In the United States, people who covet a neighbor's land &emdash; including those who would leave oil and gas in the ground to protect a view &emdash; have the right to pursue acquisition of the parcel. If they cannot or will not buy the property, it is not theirs to control. Yet, some seek control by government force. They want amendments to the state constitution that allow cities and counties to prevent property owners from harvesting oil and gas.
"Someone owns those mineral rights underground," Hickenlooper said. "And if we tell people that they can't drill in that meadow, government has snatched away private property from somebody, and government should not ever look at doing that."
The proposed ballot measures would facilitate control of private assets without due process of eminent domain, in which a court tries to arbitrate a just and equitable transaction. Local politicians could merely impose control and, voilá, investments would vanish. Mineral-rich lands would sit idle, dashing retirement plans. For others, the spoiled investments would mean no money for college or income for basic needs. Jobs would be lost, along with significant tax revenues for roads, bridges, public safety and schools.
Hickenlooper seems genuinely committed to finding common ground. He wants to please those who seek control of properties they do not own, owners of mineral deposits and energy producers who create good jobs and move us toward freedom from foreign fuel.
We applaud the governor's commitment to a win-win resolution, but it may be wishful thinking. Colorado's energy producers contend with the toughest regulations in the country, which keep a lot of oil and gas producers away. More regulation may cause most or all producers to flee.
Furthermore, there is no just way to grant activists control of private property without compromising prosperity. State and federal constitutions protect private property because the people who founded this country foresaw just these types of conflicts. They wrote laws to prevent majorities from controlling investments that belong to individuals.
If voters succeed at compromising property rights, they will do so at a cost of jobs and economic stability. They will impose economic hardship for the sake of controlling that which is not theirs. They will erode fundamental property rights essential to production of wealth.