The Case for Shale

National Affairs, V. 28, pp. 68-82, 2016

Posted: 25 Oct 2016 Last revised: 1 Nov 2016

Date Written: October 24, 2016


Since 2000, the United States has experienced a significant surge in domestic production of oil and natural gas. This surge is due to the “shale revolution” — the discovery and implementation of technologies to extract oil and natural gas from shales and other “tight” rocks. In the last decade, however, shale production has come under severe political criticism. Critics argue that the production of oil and natural gas from shales is dirty, disruptive to local communities, threatening to climate change, and threatening to local supplies of fresh water.

To date, supporters have defended shale production with simple economic statistics — like measurements of the wealth or jobs created by shale production. But supporters have not yet offered a robust moral and political account why shale production contributes to a just political order. This essay argues that it is bad policy and politics to defend shale production only on economic grounds. To fill the missing moral argument, the essay offers a justification for shale production, as the free exercise of property rights ordered to encourage the discovery and use of resources likely to contribute to the flourishing of American citizens. This moral justification has facilitated the shale revolution. Flourishing-based property principles informed the common law rules under which shale deposits are private property, and not government-owned resources as they are in most other countries. This moral justification also supplies a framework for evaluating current proposed restrictions on shale production — to determine which restrictions are carefully-tailored regulations to protect water and air quality, and which are arbitrary confiscations of property rights.

Keywords: Aristotle, Commons, Cost-Benefit Analysis, Drilling, Energy, Environmental Protection, Fracking, Free Enterprise, Hydraulic Fracturing, Locke, Lord Coke, Natural Gas, Mineral Lease, Moral Rights, Natural Law, Oil, Petroleum, Property Rights

JEL Classification: K11, K 23, K32

Suggested Citation

Claeys, Eric R., The Case for Shale (October 24, 2016). National Affairs, V. 28, pp. 68-82, 2016. Available at SSRN:

Eric R. Claeys (Contact Author)

George Mason University ( email )

3301 Fairfax Drive
Room 420
Arlington, VA 22201
United States
(703) 993-8247 (Phone)
(703) 993-8202 (Fax)

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