Thursday, November 29, 2012

The BP Spill: What's the Monetary Cost of Environmental Damage?

 In April 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig suffered an explosion followed by an enormous oil spill. Here, I'll first lay out the question of much BP is likely to end up paying as a result of the spill, a number which is gradually being clarified by the passage of time and evolution of lawsuits. But beyond the question of what is going to happen, economists face a controversy about how best to place a dollar value on these kinds of environmental damages--and the most recent issue of my own Journal of Economic Perspectives has a three-paper symposium on the "contingent valuation" method.

A couple of weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced at a press conference in New Orleans: "BP has agreed to plead guilty to all 14 criminal charges – admitting responsibility for the deaths of 11 people and the events that led to an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.   The company also has agreed to pay $4 billion in fines and penalties. This marks both the single largest criminal fine – more than $1.25 billion – and the single largest total criminal resolution – $4 billion – in the history of the United States."

But as Nathan Richardson of Resources for the Future points out, the criminal penalty is a small slice of what BP will end up paying: "But remember that this criminal settlement is only a small part of BP’s liability. Earlier this year, BP reached a preliminary $7.8b class settlement with a large number of private plaintiffs (fishermen, property owners, etc.) harmed by the spill. That agreement is currently under review by a federal district court judge. This is in addition to $8b in payments made to private parties who agreed not to litigate (from BP’s oil spill “fund”). Future payments to private parties are likely as claims on the fund are resolved or as those who were not part of the class settlement pursue separate claims. BP also claims to have paid out $14b in cleanup costs.
But that’s not all. BP still must face civil suit from the federal government (and states) over natural resources damages. ... BP also faces civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, which would quadruple from $5.5b to $21b if gross negligence is found. In other words, BP will pay out the largest criminal settlement in U.S. history and it will be only a small share of its total liability."

I don't have anything new to say about the parade of events leading up to the spill, nor about the halting efforts to stop the flow and start a clean-up. For details on what happened, a useful starting point is the report from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon  Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling  that was released in January 2011. From the Foreword of that report: "The explosion that tore through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig last April 20 [2010], as the rig’s
crew completed drilling the exploratory Macondo well deep under the waters of the Gulf of
Mexico, began a human, economic, and environmental disaster. Eleven crew members died, and others were seriously injured, as fire engulfed and ultimately destroyed the rig. And, although the nation would not know the full scope of the disaster for weeks, the first of more than four million barrels of oil began gushing uncontrolled into the Gulf—threatening livelihoods, precious habitats, and even a unique way of life. ... There are recurring themes of missed warning signals, failure to share information, and a general lack of appreciation for the risks involved.... But that complacency affected government as well as industry. The Commission has documented the weaknesses and the inadequacies of the federal regulation and oversight, and made important recommendations for changes in legal authority, regulations, investments in expertise, and management."

In editing the Fall 2012 issue of my own Journal of Economic Perspectives, I found myself focused on a narrower issue: How does one put a meaningful economic number on widespread environmental damage. The issue has three papers focused on a method called "contingent valuation," which involves using survey results to estimate damages. Catherine L. Kling, Daniel J. Phaneuf and Jinhua Zhao offer an overview of the disputes and issues surrounding this method. Then, Richard Carson makes the case that contingent valuation methods have developed sufficiently to be an accurate  estimating technique, while Jerry Hausman offers a skeptical view that contingent valuation surveys are so fundamentally flawed that their results should be completely disregarded. As usual, all JEP articles from the most recent back to the first issue in 1987 are freely available on-line, compliments of the American Economic Association.

From an economic perspective, the fundamental difficulty here is that not all the environmental damages affect economic output. A major oil spill, for example, affects production directly in industries like fishing and tourism and other industries directly, but it also affects birds and fish and beaches in ways that don't show up as a drop in economic output. In the economics literature, these losses are sometimes know as "passive use value." The notion is that even if I never visit the Gulf Coast around Louisiana and Mississippi, nor eat fish caught there, my utility can be affected by the environmental destruction that occurred. Thus, the argument goes that economic theory should take this "passive use" into account--roughly, the value that people place on the environmental damage that occurred--in thinking about lawsuits and policy choices.

The immediate objections to contingent value methods of setting such values are obvious: If people are just asked to place a value on environment damage, isn't it plausible that their answers will be untethered by reality? Richard Carson, a strong advocate of these methods, faces such skepticism head-on. He writes: "Economists are naturally skeptical of data generated from responses to survey questions—and they should be! Many surveys, including contingent valuation surveys, are inadequate." He also argues, "The best contingent valuation surveys are among the best survey instruments currently being administered while the worst are among the worst."

Carson emphasizes that a high-quality contingent valuation survey takes considerable care to provide what can be several dozen pages of focus-group-tested information to consider, and emphasizes to the responders that the results of the survey are likely to help guide policy outcomes. In such a setting, he argues that people have the information and incentives to answer truthfully. Hausman responds that such surveys are plagued by difficulties: for example, the "hypothetical bias" that people tend to overstate their value when they aren't actually paying; or that valuations can vary according to how questions are phrases, like whether the question asks about willingness-to-pay to avoid environmental damage or willingness-to-accept that the same amount of environmental damage will be done; or that when people value, say, three projects separately or the combination of those three projects, their answers often don't add up. Carson discusses how those who carry out such surveys seek to deal with these issues and others. Hausman says that legislatures, regulatory agencies, and courts, relying on expert opinion, are by far a preferable way to take passive use value into account. Kling, Phaneuf and Zhao point out that over 7,000 of these contingent valuation studies have been done in the last two decades, provide a background and framework for thinking about all of these issues. Of course, those who want all the ins and outs and gory details are encouraged to check out the articles themselves. 

To my knowledge, no contingent valuation surveys of the costs of the BP oil spill have yet been published. But it is interesting that after the Exxon Valdez spill, the eventual settlement roughly matched the estimates of the contingent valuation study. As Richard Carson notes: "Soon after the Exxon Valdez spill in March 1989, the state of Alaska funded a contingent valuation study, contained in Carson, Mitchell, Hanemann, Kopp, Presser, and Ruud (1992), which estimated the American public’s willingness to pay to avoid an oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez at about $3 billion. The results of the study were shared with Exxon and a settlement for approximately $3 billion was reached, thus avoiding a long court case." As contingent valuation studies of the BP spill are published, it will be interesting to compare them with the amounts that BP is paying in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill.