Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Survives Recall Vote

San Francisco voters on Tuesday soundly defeated a proposal to study draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The Reservoir provides drinking water to San Francisco and surrounding areas.

This was one of the few referendums in Tuesday’s election that I found really interesting. Here’s what I wrote some time ago about the issue:

Wow. Just wow. The voters of San Francisco this November will have the opportunity to vote on a measure to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Now, if you’re not familiar with the battle over Hetch Hetchy, let me just say that the damming of the Tuolumne River stands as one of the earliest and most pivotal debates about national parks and, really, wilderness in America. This was the fight that made the Sierra Club a national powerhouse and John Muir a legend. This is what you call turning back the clock on what many see as a national tragedy.

And now, nearly a century following passage of the law that allowed the damning of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, San Franciscans will decide if restoring the place Muir described as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” is worth more than the cheap drinking water and hydro power they receive from the dam. And if you think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion in ultra-liberal San Fran, guess again. The liberal political establishment is lined up against the measure, while some prominent republicans and the environmentalists are in favor of removing the dam. I’ll be watching this one closely.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by the outcome, but the overwhelming vote against the proposal (77%) comes as a shock. Then again, as I wrote in my post about hypocrisy a few days back, the ultra-liberal eco-conscious voters of San Francisco can hardly be faulted for opposing the measure. After all, they were acting in their roles as consumers, not environmentalists. If it were 1906 all over again and the voters were deciding for the first time whether or not to dam the Hetch Hetchy valley, I tend to believe the vote would have gone in the opposite direction.

Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse

I hate headlines like this: “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word, so let me explain.

The content of this Yahoo News! story is dead on. It explains how a team of marine biologists from the University of Queensland (down under) became curious about how long human activity had been altering the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. They determined that in addition to coral kills associated with snorkeling and climate change, agriculture activities that occurred over 50 years ago had fundamentally altered the coral reef community. They concluded that humans had been damaging coral reefs for far longer than previously believed.

But here’s the last two paragraphs of the Yahoo News! story:

While the findings suggest humans have been damaging reefs far longer than previously thought, the problem has a straightforward, local solution: Reduce polluted runoff into the ocean, Pandolfi said.

“Any kind of measures that are going to improve the water quality should help those reefs to recover.”

That’s the message we want. That’s the headline. “Any kind of measures…improve water quality…help those reefs to recover.” Compare that to “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” “Historic” and “collapse” used together in the headline = instant despair, doesn’t it?

You know, I started writing this post to explain how I hate the way they always write “humans caused” some environment mess, like the mess is due to the mere fact of human existence. I hate that tone – that environmental problems are hopeless as long as we humans are around. But that’s not the case, and never is. Most environmental problems are due to specific, identifiable, and thankfully correctable human activities. And just like the concluding paragraphs of this story – “any kind of measure … should help” – knowing that we are performing some environmentally destructive activity that is entirely correctable places back upon our broad and deep collective shoulders the emphasis and the responsibility and thank God the ability to fix these problems! That’s the right perspective, and is a far more positive message for those of us who care about the state of our environment. Let’s make that the headline.

Hurricane Sandy Brings Toxic Sludge

Via Drudge Report, news that one of America’s most extensively contaminated water bodies is flooding. The New York Observer has a story short on information and long on photos. It’s not a pretty sight:

Flooding in the canal is troubling as its a superfund site that is home to extensive industrial activity and has a long, well-deserved reputation as a hotbed of toxic sludge and pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency describes the canal as “one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies.”

If this is the worst news to come out of Hurricane Sandy, we will be very fortunate indeed. I have no doubt that every significant storm leaves behind an environmental mess, mostly due to the flooding of sewage and waste treatment systems and generally the washing of all the detritus of human activity into the ocean.

Is Your Fish Toxic?

Asks Moldy Chum.

New data collected by Columbia Riverkeeper show shocking levels of toxic pollution in local fishermen’s catch in Oregon and Washington. A Portland, Oregon, fish, for example, contains PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) at levels 27,000 percent above what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe for unrestricted consumption.

Is it an omen that this isn’t news to me? Doesn’t shock or even surprise me? I didn’t even put my coffee down, or read the entire story. I’m only posting it in light of my earlier post on mercury contamination of fish in Lake Powell.

Here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to buy a camera, a nice camera, idiot-proof, so that I can take photos of nature – the stars and clouds and mountains and all the outdoors – so that I can provide some balance on this blog. It’s all bad news, doesn’t it seem? Overwhelmingly bad, horrible news. We need some positivity, beauty, inspiration. We need a little something to remind us what it’s all about, to make us smile and be optimistic and joyful and passionate and caring.

Congratulations. You’ve Pissed Me Off.

This news from my former stomping grounds in Page, Ariz. is just lovely: High mercury lands Lake Powell fish on food alert list. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

Striped bass from the southern reaches of Lake Powell, along with largemouth bass in Quail Creek Reservoir, have joined the list of Utah fish with mercury consumption advisories.

“We thought it was time to get the message out to people,” Amy Dickey of the Utah Division of Water Quality told the Statewide Mercury Work Group on Thursday, noting that methylmercury levels in Lake Powell’s stripers have hovered around the worrisome zone for several years.

With this first mercury warning for Lake Powell, one of the state’s most popular recreation spots, officials suggest pregnant women and children under 6 should eat no more than one 4-ounce serving per month.

Yes, just the pregnant women and children need to worry. Very comforting. Please tell me more:

“We’re not saying: don’t eat these fish,” he [Roger Wilson, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources] said. “We’re saying: eat according to the guidelines that have been issued” and that are kept up-to-date on the state’s mercury web page.

“Mind the eating guidelines” they say. For fresh caught fish, from a fresh water lake, with some of the cleanest water in the nation – other than the damn mercury, of course.

I lived beneath the stacks of the Navajo Generating Station for three years; I studied that coal-fired power plant like one would a painting. I looked at it from every angle – the poverty ridden Navajo who were employed by it, the environmentalists who despised it, the rural economy and downstream power consumers who depend on it. I could see the NGS plant, with all its ugliness and efficiency and necessity, from every perspective, and whenever I felt a little holier-than-thou about an environmental issue somewhere across the globe, I would stop and consider the complexities of NGS, and understand that the answers, while often clear to me, are far from simple to live by.

But Lake Powell is my lake. I spent three years working there as a park service employee, caring for that place, protecting it, promoting it, and deeply appreciating all my colleagues who were doing the same.

And now I feel betrayed.

Mercury Emissions and Cost-Benefit Analysis: My Final Say

On Tuesday I wrote about EPA’s new mercury emissions rule, and lamented the state of our discourse on environmental issues. I followed that post with a discussion of the appropriate role for economic analysis in environmental regulations. Today I want to bring our mercury discussion to a conclusion and offer a critical view of cost-benefit analysis (CBA), provide an alternative economic rational for pricing externalities, and close with an appeal to ethics-based decision making.

In environmental and health regulations, CBA assigns monetary values to human life and health so that the benefits and costs can be compared. A major flaw in CBA is the methods used to determine these values.

Because there is no market for human health and happiness – one cannot buy the right to a life – CBA attempts to determine these values by asking individuals what they would be willing to pay to remain healthy and free from harm. CBA then aggregates these values to determine what society is willing to pay for the benefits of environmental protection.

But relying on any individual to accurately respond to scenarios in which he attempts to value his life in monetary terms is a deeply flawed analytical approach. Bias is unavoidable (based on income, background, education and so on), and it is deeply suspect that an individual is capable under a hypothetical situation to value her own life. Consider just two scenarios: ask me to value my health and I may give you a dollar value (as an experiment); ask me what my family’s health is worth, and how much I’d pay to keep them from getting sick, and I’ll punch you in the nose. Second, ask me how much I’d be willing to pay to remain healthy after I am diagnosed with leukemia. I believe you’d receive a dramatically different response.

Further, these questions about pollution and risk are societal decisions, not individual decisions. Asking an individual what she would pay to keep herself free from harm is much different than asking what she would pay to keep society from harm, or what she thinks society could afford to prevent harm. The scale is vastly different between the individual, with her limited means, and society as a collective, and I suspect that an individual would be willing for society to pay a great deal more to keep all members healthy.

So the values that CBA assigns to the “benefits” of environmental protection are derived from what I and many others argue are deeply flawed methods.

Another critical error I see in the CBA analysis of the mercury rule is that its proponents fail to understand that opportunity costs cut both ways. This is an alternative perspective on CBA that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Consider: We have allowed a major industry to free-ride for at least 50 or 60 years, since we first realized that mercury emissions were accumulating in the environment and causing harm. During this time, industry has not had to pay the true costs associated with their economic activities. We know there is a cost to mercury emissions, because we are arguing about it now. Take that cost and apply it retroactively for five decades.

The problem with free-riding goes beyond the failure to recognize and collect the costs associated with industry’s negative externalities. The real issue is foregone opportunity costs and the misallocation of resources. The coal-fired power industry has operated under unfair market conditions for decades. By not paying the true costs associated with their activities, they have operated in a subsidized environment, and on an unlevel playing field. Let me ask: if for the past 50 years electricity from coal was priced to include the costs of its resulting pollution, what would the energy market look like today? Would the market price of coal have been sufficiently higher to allow competing industries to arise? Would the curve of technological development and innovation in alternative energy sources bent sharply upward? What competing industries may have arisen to challenge coal and to provide substitute means of energy production?

All the mercury rule does is correct a major market failure: Government is finally requiring the coal-fired power industry to account for the costs of the negative externalities associated with their activities. And still industry gets a free ride: No one is accounting for the costs to mitigate the damage already done to the environment and public health.

Lost in the debate on EPA’s mercury rule is any discussion of our ethical obligations as a society to the well-being of ours and future generations. Here we are at Free the Commons! writing three posts on CBA because economics and electricity costs are the dominant focus of the mercury debate, overriding all other considerations. Economic analysis has a role – an important role – in helping the public and our decision-makers understand choices between competing policies and options. But economic analysis should never have been afforded the role it plays today of primary determinant in what is and is not acceptable environmental policy. Economic analysis has distracted us from our responsibilities as adults, as members of a community, as caretakers and stewards of the environment. And our continued shortsightedness will cost us far more than we gain if we fail to recognize the need – not economic choice, but need – for a healthy, unimpaired, and productive environment.

More on Mercury Emissions and Economic Analysis

After blogging last night about EPA’s mercury emissions rule, I spent today reading about cost-benefit analysis as an approach to evaluating environmental regulations. I’m a fiscal conservative, but also a dedicated conservationist. As an undergraduate, I took every Econ class I could to boost my GPA. I understand cost-benefit analysis, and I understand economics. More importantly, I understand opportunity costs.

Cost-benefit analysis is meaningless unless one understands opportunity costs. After all, the argument isn’t really about whether something costs too much compared to the benefits received. The real argument is the trade-offs one must make when one decides to ‘purchase’ one thing rather than another thing, such as mercury free emissions rather than ‘insert your favorite good or service here’. What critics of the EPA’s mercury rule are really arguing is that there are better uses of the money that the rule would force us to spend.

To this end, those who place monetary values on human well-being and life are not monsters. They are providing a valuable service, an ethical service even, to the public and decision-makers. Consider this scenario: We’re told that the mercury emissions rule will cost $XX, and that this is too much money for $X benefit in sickness averted or lives saved. But the true value in cost-benefit analysis is to show that for those $XX spent on mercury emissions reductions that only save $X in human welfare, we could turn around and spend those $XX monies on items or services that maybe provide $XXX in human welfare.

I’m not a fool. I served my time in politics (and I’m sure I will again). I understand the motivations of those who are making these arguments about the costs and benefits of the mercury rule. Most of this is not altruism. But I think we need to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and understand there is value to economic analysis and economic measures assigned to environmental regulations, even to those regulations which protect human health and save human lives.

We need to understand that budgets are real, both at the government/societal level, and at the individual level, and we need to recognize that regulations carry costs. We need to understand that to do one thing may preclude the opportunity to do another more productive or valuable thing with our financial resources. We need to recognize that economics, at its heart, is the art of balancing finite resources against infinite wants and needs. Desire always outweighs the pocketbook. This is a fact, a truism, and it’s not wrong to apply economics to environmental policy.

Now, having written all of that, I’ll offer a follow-up post on why the cost-benefit analysis offered for the mercury rule is bunk. Stay tuned…