Even Professor Christopher Stone would have some difficulty extending moral consideration to coal, oil, or gas (I think). Stone first posed an ethical question in the pages of the University of Southern California Law Review 45 (1972) that has remained a perennial favorite for nearly two generations of environmental philosophers, ethicists, law school professors and the like; Stone's question: "Should Trees Have Standing?"
Bad pun aside, Stone was able to hang his academic hat on that question. Although I don't really remember the exact logic of his argument, I don't think he successfully argued that trees should be extended moral (or legal) rights.
Everywhere it is occurring, the development of mineral resources for fuel (i.e. coal, gas, coalbed methane) presents a deluge of social and ecological challenges for policymakers and citizens alike. But I find it to be particularly troublesome when land use planning officials can successfully claim that coal has any sort of legal right. Unfortunately, it is also the case that in many mostly western U.S. states that, while the mineral itself does not have any inherent right, there's a good chance that someone or something has the legal right to get at it -- and that something is usually the federal government.
So-called "split estates" are legally binding mechanisms by which a land title is considered as completely separate from the title to the underlying minerals, including oil, gas and coal. According to the High Country News, forty-eight percent of Wyoming’s private land is split estate, and the Bureau of Land Management began leasing the minerals under tens of thousands of acres of this private land. Once the subsurface rights are leased, surface owners have little recourse against the traffic explosion on freshly bulldozed roads. Energy exploration and development (and most mining practices more broadly) threaten the quality of the air and water, they disrupt and fragment wildlife habitat, they have contributed to boom-and-busty cycles with often devastating economic consequences. And, as recent events in Utah and elsewhere have reminded us, energy development endangers the health and safety of the humans who live and work amongst it.
Thankfully, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition has publicized some of these problems in a powerful series of pictures of mountaintop removal mining and information as well as a collection of quotes from energy industry representatives, company execs and public officials. Below is one of the most memorable ones (and ultimately, the inspiration for this post):
"There's still coal underneath the land and sometime in the future, that coal has the right to be mined. What I am saying is there are areas where people will build and in the future they will have to un-build." -Campbell County (WY) Commissioner Alan Weakly and former mining engineer.