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Virginia's Uranium Mining Moratorium Should Be Buried, But What About Property Rights?

The earth below the United States contains 5 percent of the world's known recoverable uranium deposits. More than a quarter of U.S. uranium is found in southern Virginia at Coles Hill near Chatham in Pittsylvania County. The two uranium deposits at Coles Hill are valued at $7 billion and together constitute the seventh largest deposit in the world.

Yet all of it is still in the ground. Over 30 years ago, Virginia placed a moratorium on uranium mining in the state. This prohibition was to be lifted once the state went through the arduous process of drafting uranium mining regulations. Unfortunately, Virginia never got around to writing the rules and the "temporary" ban is still in place. The property owners at Coles Hill and some outside investors formed a company in order to mine uranium once the moratorium is lifted and the onerous regulations recommended by the Uranium Working Group [PDF] are promulgated, but still face stiff opposition from the sadly typical alliance of anti-development environmentalists and ignorant NIMBYs.

This underscores the problem with relying on unreliable and arbitrary regulatory regimes for the ostensible purpose of protecting residents and the environment. Few dispute that responsible, safe uranium mining is possible and indeed practiced throughout the world, especially in major uranium-producing countries such as Australia and Canada. Instead of increasing regulation on mining, however, a more thoughtful approach would focus on strengthening property rights so that those doing the mining face incentives to extract natural resources without harming adjacent property owners.

Robust private property rights -- those which are well defined, well defended, and voluntarily transferable -- are the most critical underpinning of any free society. It should not be surprising that they are also the best tools to protect others and the environment from potential hazards. (For a brief discussion and defense of free-market environmentalism, see "Liberty, Markets, and Environmental Values" by Mark Pennington.) Pollution in this context constitutes a trespass against those rights and the injured owner can file suit to halt harmful activity and collect damages. But relying on the regulatory state in an attempt to protect the environment essentially grants polluters additional rights while preventing property owners from exercising their rights to defend their own property from pollution. This false commons is forced upon society by government and the predictable tragedies result again and again. Unfortunately, these state-caused disasters often only embolden far-left environmentalists in their calls for doubling down on failed regulations.

A firm engaged in uranium mining under state and federal regulations has the incentive to follow the regulations to the letter, regardless of how arbitrary or counterproductive they may be. In contrast, robust property rights would incent miners to allocate resources efficiently (after all, pollution is just a form of waste), take immediate risks into account, and prevent expensive trespasses against neighbors.

While this vision of a free society is far different from our current reality -- meaning a complex regulatory regime will be practically necessary for uranium mining to take place in Virginia anytime soon -- it is important to remember that it is an absence of liberty, rather than an excess, that increases harm done to people and the environment in the first place.