sustainability is a collective decision

Netizens have joked that using a blow dryer or tanning may now infringe on national property rights.

Just recently, Heilongjiang Province promulgated laws governing the analysis of atmospheric resources and conservation (黑龙江省气候资源探测与保护条例). The key and controversial point, of course, is the decision that atmospheric resources, including wind energy, solar energy, precipitation, and ambient air are natural resources and as such belong to the country.

What does that mean?

According to Minister of Meteorology, Zheng Guoguang (郑国光) the laws do not mean that air has been privatized — “impossible!” he said — but rather that the research and development of energy resources will be centralized. The legislation seems to me a rather straight forward decision to institute state monopolies on the production and allocation of sustainable energy. It also anticipates state appropriation of sustainable energy technologies that are developed outside the context of national research and development, but within national borders.

Other countries have also begun to dispute the question of “wind rights”. Denmark, for example, compensates neighboring landowners for loss of property value due to the erection of wind turbines. More interestingly, the Danish government has adjudicated on disputes that (depending on placement) new wind turbines “take wind” from extant turbines.

Ron Rebenitschhas considered water laws (first in time, first in right) and oil right laws (compensatory unitization) as models for developing wind laws. In the former, the first user to develop a qualified use of water (i.e., irrigation) from a flowing stream develops certain rights to divert a defined quantity of water from the stream if it is available. Later users of water from that stream can still divert water from that stream, but only in quantities that do not affect the earlier users’ ability to divert the allocated quantity of water.

In contrast, when an oil well is drilled, the oil flows to the well from all directions, without regard for ownership of mineral rights. Thus adjacent mineral rights holders could theoretically have their oil drain to the nearby well, without recompense. Under unitization, the production of an oil field is then allocated proportionally to the surrounding mineral rights owners, in accordance with pre-determined impact.

Like the Danish and US American discussion, China’s nascent foray into wind rights discussion do not take international borders and sustained regional inequalities into account. Consider, for example, the Law of the Colorado River.

This thicket of deals, trade-offs, set-asides, subsidies and politically sanctioned thievery is nearly impenetrable to even the most seasonedand cynical observer. But from the Mexican side of the border,the law is devastatingly simple: The US retains 95 percent ofthe Colorado River’s water and Mexico gets what’s left over. Most years this is about 1.5 million acre feet, roughly the same amountthat Sonoran desert farmers were using to irrigate their beanand onion fields in 1922.

Likewise, in the Middle East, long-term sustainable economic development depends on access to clean and dependable supplies of freshwater. In turn, this access continues to depend upon region wide management agreements (Gleick, Yolles, and Hatami). More recently, US American Intelligence has predicted increasing risks of water conflicts worldwide. As in the Middle East, shared water resources are increasingly used to threaten neighboring states, while the over-pumping of groundwater supplies threatens the agricultural production, which accounts for 70% of freshwater usage.

All this to make a simple point.

In China, the rhetoric of a centralized state frames the discussion of sustainable resources, while in the Middle East and United States, we can speak of “water security” and thereby transform drinking water into weapons of war.  Thus, the development of sustainable energy sources is as potentially fraught as the development of other resources (oil and now water) because we are proposing to use the same, unsustainable models of production, distribution, and allocation.

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