Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Making the Case for Ecosystem Services Valuation

Nature, Volume 465, Pages 985–986

On June 14, 2010, BP pledged $20 billion to an escrow account to pay for damage caused by the April 22, 2010 sinking of its Deepwater Horizon drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana. The beneficiaries of this fund are expected to be fishermen, hoteliers, charter-boat operators, and other Gulf-coast business owners who have lost income, as well as states and other entities with clean-up costs.

However, whether payment will ever be made for the loss of 'ecosystem services' is unknown. Ecosystem services benefit everyone but are owned by no one, such as the carbon sequestration provided by marsh plants and ocean plankton, or the buffering that coastal marshes provide to nearby communities from the Gulf's many hurricanes.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska raised similar questions, and sparked a flurry of research in the once-obscure discipline of ecological economics, which seeks to estimate quantities such as the 'replacement cost' of an ecosystem — or even an individual organism. (For example, killer whales cost $300,000 at the time; cormorants were $310.) The Gulf oil spill seems likely to inspire another surge of research in this field.

Ecological economist Robert Costanza at the University of Vermont in Burlington has already estimated a $34 billion to $670 billion price tag for the loss of Gulf ecosystem services.

Read more in "A Full Accounting", in the June 24, 2010 issue of Nature.

EPA Sets Stronger National Air Quality Standard for Sulfur Dioxide

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is issuing a final new health standard for sulfur dioxide (SO2). This one-hour health standard will protect millions of Americans from short-term exposure to SO2, which is primarily emitted from power plants and other industrial facilities. Exposure to SO2 can aggravate asthma and cause other respiratory difficulties.

The EPA is setting the one-hour SO2 health standard at 75 parts per billion (ppb), a level designed to protect against short-term exposures ranging from five minutes to 24 hours, revoking the current 24-hour and annual SO2 health standards in the process.

The EPA is also changing the monitoring requirements for SO2. Any new monitors required by this rule must begin operating no later than January 1, 2013, and modeling as well as monitoring will determine compliance with the new standard.

EPA estimates that the health benefits associated with this rule range between $13 billion and $33 billion annually. These benefits include preventing 2,300 to 5,900 premature deaths and 54,000 asthma attacks a year. The estimated cost in 2020 to fully implement this standard is approximately $1.5 billion.

Read the full press release.