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How To Put A Value On Oil Damaged Life In The Gulf


OK. It's been a year-and-a-half since the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On the surface, things look normal. But scientists suspect there's long-term damage that is invisible. The companies responsible for the spill will have to pay for that damage. Scientists now want to try a new approach to putting a value on the damaged fish, coral reefs and marshes in the Gulf. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: When Exxon settled up with Alaskans for the damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the payout was based largely on how many acres got oiled and how many animals died. Scientists want to take a different tack with the Gulf Oil spill. They want to try to pin a value on the lost ecosystem services. Which is...

MARY RUCKELSHAUS: A horrible term that somebody coined way back when.

JOYCE: Mary Ruckelshaus is a biologist at Stanford University who specializes in this arcane field of environmental science. What it means is: the things of value that nature provides people. For example...

RUCKELSHAUS: If you change like a habitat, a marsh or a species, you know, shrimp, how does that change the value to humans, instead of quantifying damage in terms of acres of a marsh lost or number of shrimp killed?

JOYCE: For example, how many marshes where fish and shrimp breed have been lost?

Last January, Congress asked the National Research Council in Washington, D.C., an elite scientific organization, for advice on how to figure out the value of what BP and its drilling partners damaged. And their panel of experts says let's look at the whole web of life in the Gulf.

RALPH STAHL: I can say with some certainty that no one has faced a challenge quite like this, particularly given the size and the breadth of the spill in the Gulf.

JOYCE: Ralph Stahl is an environmental scientist with DuPont Company who's part of the NRC's expert panel. Their report this week points out that the Gulf, twice the size of Texas, is one of the most productive fisheries in the country. It's home to coral reefs and clouds of plankton. It's lined with marshes that protect the coast from storms and provide shelter for shrimp and fish.

The idea that you can calculate the value of nature in such a big place has been largely an academic exercise so far. Stephen Polasky, an economist at the University of Minnesota, says now it's time to get real.

STEPHEN POLASKY: OK. You guys have been talking about ecosystem services or what does nature do for people, and now, you know, prove it.

JOYCE: He sees the spill as a test.

POLASKY: I actually use this oil spill as an opportunity to try to push the science forward faster.

JOYCE: Polasky says the value of nature approach must be able to relate what happens to, say, dolphins to what happens to people.

POLASKY: So instead of just saying, well, here are the number of marine mammals that we know got oiled, how does that then translate into things that people care about, the food web dynamics, which ultimately affects fisheries?

JOYCE: Scientists argue that a better fix on the value of damaged nature could actually help BP. For example, Stanford's Mary Ruckelshaus points out that all marshes are not equal. A marsh that protects a housing development from flooding might have more value than one out in the middle of nowhere.

RUCKELSHAUS: Then that value is lower than if you're going to have a marsh oiled right in front of private property where there are people or roads.

JOYCE: The panel's report is designed to help the government determine how many billion dollars BP and its drilling partners will pay under a process called the Natural Resources Damage Assessment. They acknowledge that company lawyers could challenge any scientific calculations that look fishy. So they are spending another year before they deliver their final recommendations. That means payout could be years away.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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