Drill, baby, drill!

September 26, 2008

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday voted to lift the generation-old ban on oil drilling on the Outer Contintental Shelf, thus bringing to resolution the year-long ascension of the issue from oil-industry wish list to national policy. Democrats, ostensibly the party in control of both houses of Congress, caved in to a forceful Republican minority, and an even more forceful president, who threatened to veto any spending bills that preserved the moratorium. Offshore drilling became a mantra through the summer, when politicians strove to find a rhetorical palliative to record-high gasoline prices.

The drilling ban was never based on anything that might pass for scientific research. Through the 1970s, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, Washington kept something of an implicit, even-keeled balance between exploiting natural resources and maintaining environmental protection offshore. That changed in January 1981, when President Ronald Reagan nominated James Watt to be Secretary of the Interior. Watt has a distinguished career as secretary, which included kicking the Beach Boys out of a DC Fourth of July celebration, explaining the diversity of his staff by pointing out he employs “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple,” and also by disrupting this unspoken balance between industry and the environment.

Watt moved to open coastal waters to more exploration, breaking the implicit deal, an action met by outrage by the environmental community. The Sierra Club organized a petition campaign to push back Watt’s heavy hand. The trouble was, what did they want to push it back to? As a practical matter, it was difficult to say what the best solution to the problem was; it would take too much time, thought, and effort to try and gerrymander an equitable system of where thou shalt drill and where shalt thou not. So the Sierra Club petition, eventually signed by 1 million Americans, called for moratoria on drilling in U.S. waters off the East and West coasts. The easiest answer was taking the whole OCS off the table.

Will Rising Tides Lift All Boats?

September 25, 2008

Global climate models have difficulty resolving possible regional impacts of global warming. The Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis at Florida State University recently tried to address this shortcoming by taking a ground-up approach to predicted sea level rise and its possible economic implications.

A new report (link in .pdf) is called Climate Change in Coastal Areas of Florida: Sea Level Rise Estimation and Economic Analysis to Year 2080. Julie Harrington and Todd L. Walton Jr. look at six Florida counties located around the state, from rural to urban. The researchers estimated how high waters might rise using tide data from six stations around the state. Their model returned a range for higher sea levels of 0.23 feet to 0.29 ft in 2030 and 0.83 ft to 1.13 ft in 2080, lower than IPCC general estimates, but both low and high estimates were used to model economic costs.

Harrington and Walton used historical damage costs from hurricanes and current property values. Costs associated with sea-level rise top $1 billion under a 0.16 ft rise, but escalate past $12 billion in a 2.13 ft rise scenario. The study does not take into account likely adaptation to rising waters or rising property values. Rather it is meant to identify areas at potential risk and assign dollar estimates to possible damage in a state where 80 percent of the population lives in coastal counties and that relies on coastal tourism for 10 percent of its income.

(Aside: Scientists have predicted Florida could suffer from sea-level rise long before the physical evidence for manmade global warming was clear. Watch this clip from a 1958 educational film sponsored by Bell Labs and produced by It’s a Wonderful Life Director Frank Capra.)

“Equity in the Ecosystem”

September 22, 2008

A new report concludes that assigning individual property rights within the fishing industry staves off ecosystem collapse more frequently than other types of governance.

Management policies that assign catch rights to individuals may better stave off fishery collapse, according a report in Science. Christopher Costello, Steven D. Gaines, and John Lynham assembled a worldwide database of fisheries and catch statistics in 11,135 fisheries, from 1950 to 2003. By 2003, fisheries that have deployed “individual transferable quotas” collapse about half as frequently as fisheries that have no catch rights.

The impetus for the study came from the much-discussed 2006 study by Boris Worm et al, which predicted a collapse of all world fisheries by 2048. Costello, Gaines, and Lynham resolved that the community to date has focused on problems disproportionately to solutions. As a result, they happened upon inefficiencies in current management that might be rethought — in local ecololgical, economic, and social context. “The answer lies in the misalignment of incentives,” they write. “Even when management sets harvest quotas that could maximize profits, the incentives of the individual harvester are tyhpically inconsistent with profit maximazation for the fleet.”

Costello, Christopher, Steven D. Gaines, John Lynham. “Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse?” Science 321 (19 September 2008): 1678-1681.

See accompanying article, from which title of this post comes: Stokstad, Erik. “Privatization Prevents Collapse of Fish Stocks, Global Analysis Shows.” Science 321 (19 September 2008): 1619.