Tales from California and Cumbria: The Same, But Different

There were two news stories from last week which put US-British differences in sharp perspective. Both involve fossil fuel development. Both highlight the way in which development projects are increasingly seen as ecological projects. Climate change implications are to the fore. But then there are the differences.

The first story, from Cumbria in Northwest England concerns the development of a new deep coal mine: the first in the United Kingdom in absolutely decades. The point in favor is that it is coal that is particularly attractive for coking purposes, and hence for the iron and steel industry. It has generated huge controversy, and of national proportions: lots of publicity on BBC Online and in the quality newspapers. It has aroused environmental opposition on the fact that it is a matter of fossil fuel and all that that entails for climate change. There is local government support foregrounding jobs in an area where unemployment is relatively high. But as an ecological project, it is far from cut and dried. It has been pointed out by the pro-camp that the green transition does need steel, and lots of it. Support from local MPs is bi-partisan. The national Labour Party is opposed, but the Conservative Party Northern Research Group of MPs is in favor. The logic there is maintaining the breaches in the so-called ‘red wall’ where, at the last election, the Conservative Party was able to prevail over the Labour Party in what had been their strongholds. To construct the mine, the local authority, in this case Cumbria county council, must grant planning permission. However, under British land use planning law, where an issue is deemed of national significance, the central government can ‘call it in’, as the expression goes, which means holding a public inquiry. The result of that, carried out by an inspector from London, would be a report on the basis of which the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government would make the final decision. This could trump any previous decision of the local government.

In Kern County, the issue is drilling for oil. The county is the major producer of oil in California: about 75% of its oil production and 90% of its natural gas, and 25% of all the gasoline consumed in the state, which is also testimony to its quite massive area: almost eighty percent larger than England’s biggest county, Yorkshire or sixteen percent of the area covered by England. Controversy has erupted as a result of a decision by the county commissioners to allow the development of up to 2,697 new wells per year for the next fifteen years. Amidst stiff local opposition from farmers and environmental groups, along with that of national organizations like the Sierra Club, and embarrassment for the state government keen to burnish its de-carbonizing reputation, the usual claims are being made about jobs; the oil industry is a major local employer accounting for about 14% of the jobs there. In the case for, there is  also something different, though, which is the contribution new wells would make to the county’s finances through royalties, though the figures quoted look a bit dodgy when examined close up: so an additional $540/year/pupil in local schools, when the current spending is already a huge $60,000 per pupil. But on the other hand, the county bureaucracy would be safe, which is perhaps the point. Meanwhile, the air pollution from the oil wells is a big issue: the asthma rate among those below the age of 17 at a staggering 30% is double that in the state as a whole.

There is no way in which the state government can ‘call in’ the decision, as in the Whitehaven case. The only current restraint is through the need to complete, in virtue of state law, an Environmental Impact Report or EIR. This can be challenged in the courts as lacking in some way and is actually part of the history of the Kern County case. An earlier adverse court decision led to some downscaling of the project, including rules for distancing drilling sites from what are called ‘sensitive receptors’ – presumably housing and public facilities like schools; and substantially reducing the number of wells allowed. The new Report has now been challenged again in the courts. Even so, the California Environmental Quality Act which led to the EIR procedure, is one that protects the right of local authorities to make the final decision, and, under US conditions, that is one that presumes the right to develop. It is the county that orders the EIR and then must decide a case taking it into account. The report has to recommend ways of environmental mitigation in what is being requested. It cannot say this is a bad idea and should not happen. And if there are no conceivable ways of environmental mitigation, then so be it. That does not mean that the county must reject a proposal.

One other interesting point of contrast: Whitehaven, even though on a much smaller scale, is a national issue. Kern County is not. It has made it into the California press, but beyond there, coverage has been spotty; reference in the Washington Post, the St Louis Post Dispatch, and the Kansas City Star but nothing in the Boston Globe, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Chicago Herald Tribune, the Denver Post, the New York Times, or the Philadelphia Intelligencer (wonderful name!); which, of course, has to do in part with the way the press is organized territorially.  Newspapers appeal to regional and not to national markets. They will include items from outside the region: stuff to do with the federal government, obviously, or major disasters, stuff culled from the wire reports, but then things get a bit more blurry and subject to local editorial judgment. But testimony to the sheer extent of the country and the dispersal of major cities. The US is very different.

It is also different in its state form: highly decentralized in contrast to the, equally highly, centralized form of the British state. It begins with a radical federalism, but the states, by and large, have then chosen to delegate powers to local government. There is no state oversight of land-use planning as in British planning legislation. If local governments choose to be liberal in their interpretation of what is needed in an Environmental Impact Report, and nobody chooses to bring a law suit against it, then fine. Likewise local school districts have to raise their own monies. There are state subsidies but to judge from the Kern County case where school spending per pupil exceeds the state median by a factor of four, they are not very effective. Anxieties about local revenues can then be wheeled out in making decisions favorable to development interests, though in this instance, as we saw, the amount at stake is not that significant. And in a state educational system where decisions on salaries are made at the local level, who can say where the money will eventually land up.

In the Whitehaven instance, people are talking about jobs, as in Kern County, but no mention of local revenues, even at a time when local governments in England, in virtue of central government cutbacks, are short of money. It is true that schools have been ring fenced against the cutbacks. There has, though, been a lot of publicity regarding local government strategies to enhance revenues, like creating an investment portfolio, and the district council in question here, Copeland District, has participated in the latter. One has to conclude that for some reason rate revenues in this case are of no moment.

A concluding point that brings both cases together again, might be to point to an imbalance between local and more global considerations. In both instances, the benefits from giving the go-ahead to fossil fuel development are highly localized and very tangible, most notably in the form of jobs and one has no reason to contest that. The benefits from holding steady or even reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere are of trivial proportions, even while, when you add up all the cases in the world like Kern County and Whitehaven, they are far from insignificant. This, though, would be to accept the status quo as it affects uneven development. The latter is massively affected by government decisions regarding taxation and spending. Tax in a radically more progressive manner and redistribute in a more equalizing way, and geographic disparities in real income greatly diminish and could change the balance between local jobs and climate change anxieties in places like Whitehaven and Kern County. In short, the politics of climate change is inseparable from uneven development and measures that might mitigate it, and regardless of whether you are talking about the US or the United Kingdom.

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