o sooner had farmer groups in the Chesapeake region started protesting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's suggestion that some farm production processes might have to be regulated to reduce nutrient pollution loads, than Maryland announced that it intends to place more and better oyster bottom areas off-limits to watermen. Oyster harvesters were quick off the mark, registering their dismay.
We have The People's response to greater environmental accountability. They don't like it.
We have not yet heard how the screws will be tightened on city dwellers and developers to reduce their pollution loads, but we know that should be coming. And we can expect that the response from city dwellers and developers will be withering.
How do you tell someone that a service that they have always enjoyed freely (say, robust oyster stocks, or drainage ditches that quickly send stormwater from barnyards, fields, lawns, parking lots and roads to rivers) is no longer going to be so free and easy? Nobody wants to be framed as a part of the problem. And nobody wants to be told that the party is over.
Dennis King, an economist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, put together a useful listing of responses that might be expected from any interest group faced with an assertion that they are creating an environmental problem. The responses, in a university discussion paper titled "Business Leaders Beg Government to Regulate Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Unusual Behavior or Business as Usual?" go like this:
•Stage 1: There is no environmental problem.
•Stage 2: If there is a problem, it is not significant.
•Stage 3: If there is a significant problem, we are not responsible.
•Stage 4: If we are responsible, our positive economic impacts are far more important.
•Stage 5: If we respond, the high costs will destroy our industry.
•Stage 6: If we must respond, we must be allowed to voluntarily self-regulate.
•Stage 7: Any rules must be flexible, and we must help design them.
•Stage 8: The rules are fine, but enforcement provisions are too harsh.
•Stage 9: Enforcement provisions are fine, but penalties are excessive and will give foreign competitors an unfair advantage.
•Stage 10: Never mind, we found a technical fix that drastically lowers response costs - we're fine. Now make everyone else follow suit.
Mr. King's list provides more than just amusement value. It identifies key elements of concern to those whose livelihoods are affected by attempts to manage environmental harm. Compelling scientific evidence about significant environmental problems should be required, and we should be able to identify sources of the problems. We should avoid wreaking economic havoc on polluting industries; we should ensure that they mitigate their part of the problem in the most cost-efficient manner possible. And, we should seek technological fixes that seriously lower compliance costs. But any of this will only happen when we enforce accountability all around.
It is understandable that watermen get upset about having their best oyster grounds placed off-limits. But in the face of crashing oyster stocks, it is also understandable that managers want to preserve the productive capacity of those grounds by restricting harvests. Similarly, it is understandable that farmers want to keep doing what they have always done, without government interference. But if they are generating nutrient loads that are creating environmental harm downstream, something needs to be done about it.
The key in all of this is to anticipate the propaganda struggles that will result from imposing environmental accountability on polluters and harvesters. The biggest benefit that interest groups get from working through the orderly retreat outlined by the list above is that it buys them time (any one of those stages might last for years or for decades). If we are in a hurry to reduce pollution loads to our rivers and the bay, or to restore living resources there, we need to anticipate those delaying actions and line up our ducks from the start.
Ultimately, we need to put in place incentives that motivate the technological fixes that will address the problem without destroying industries. But that all starts with imposing accountability on those who generate environmental harm. And that will take political leadership of the sort that we do not often see. In that respect, environmentalists should be encouraged by the current round of yelping in the press.
Robert Wieland is a resource economist working to expand the application of economic analysis in environmental decision-making. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.