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Monday, May 03, 2010

BP as in Big Picture

The BP oil spill raises a host of issues for environmental law and policy.  Do the liability provisions of the Oil Pollution Act lead to satisfactory compensation of victims and sufficient spill deterrence?  Are the oil spill prevention, control, and countermeasures required under the Clean Water Act adequate?  Does the division of response authority between private oil companies and the Coast Guard lead to optimal containment?  What, if anything, does the spill suggest about corporate social responsibility as a method of protecting the environment in light of BP’s carefully cultivated “green” image?


These are all important questions.  However, a recent article in the New York Times detailing the plight of local Louisiana fishermen made me reflect on a larger question for environmental policy lurking in the spill’s messy aftermath.  The Times article describes the plight of a fisherman whose skiff was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina (a loss exacerbated by subsequent hurricanes) and then forfeited more income during a fishermen’s strike (protesting the low price of shrimp).  Now faced with the prospect of fisheries closing as a result of oil contamination, he was attending a training session in hazardous materials removal.    


Consumption (in particular of cheap energy) has long been viewed as a driver of economic growth.  The traditional solution to our fisherman’s economic woes?  More consumption, more growth, more jobs, more money!  But our fisherman’s plight illustrates in any number of ways the dangers of overconsumption.   


More -- and more furious -- hurricanes?  Chalk that up to lifestyles (everything from solo commuting and SUVs to McMansions and planned obsolescence) that consume huge amounts of energy, thereby contributing to climate change.  (Notably, this consumption problem is poised to worsen as the developing world rushes to match the lifestyles – and attendant energy consumption levels – of the developed world.)   


Offshore oil drilling?  Justified to sate (and protect, on national security grounds) our “need” for cheap oil to support the aforementioned energy-intensive lifestyles. 


Shrimp fishing?  Although a staggering number of our fisheries have been fished to the brink of disappearance, shrimp actually remain somewhat plentiful . . . for now.  But big agriculture – the industrialization of our food supply to satisfy ever more consumption – streams nonpoint source pollution into the Mississippi River which many believe is responsible for creating a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens important shrimp fishing grounds.  And even the relative bounty of shrimp isn’t entirely good news.   There’s plenty of consumption of shrimp (over 4lbs per person in the U.S.), but that hasn’t helped our fisherman because prices have been driven down by an influx of imported, farm-raised shrimp.  Notably, the low prices for either fished or farmed shrimp do not reflect the environmental costs imposed by either practice.  For example, the trawlers often used to catch shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico also kill more than 450 groups of organisms taken as bycatch, including the fast disappearing red snapper, in addition to damaging the ocean floor.


So as we consider the very specific environmental law and policy issues that the BP spill raises, it is useful to take a moment and reflect on a larger, more difficult challenge that it highlights – the need to use law and policy to achieve levels of consumption that are sustainable.  James Salzman, Douglas Kysar, Michael Vandenbergh, Albert Lin, and others have explored the fraught intersection between law and consumption in serious ways but there is, as yet, no clear vision or consensus as to how policy needs to evolve to reduce levels of consumption, let alone the public or political will to support such a reorientation.  I offer the plight of our fisherman as yet another reminder of the importance of the task.

Posted by Katrina Kuh on May 3, 2010 at 08:19 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Just another of the many problems that could be simply solved by reining in the breeders.

Posted by: Jimbino | May 3, 2010 9:29:04 AM

I think this is a very good idea. What would it look like though? Do you have any examples or links to an important source or two that helped lead you to this? Thanks

Posted by: Eric | May 3, 2010 9:05:14 AM

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