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Environmental economists work middle ground

At first glance, the term “environmental economist” looks oxymoronic. Is this a tree-hugging, crusading environmentalist or a money-grubbing, pragmatic economist?

Dan Petrolia, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Mississippi State University, laughs when asked that question.

“I guess it depends on who you ask,” Petrolia said. “I think some environmentalists as well as elements of the business community are unsure what an environmental economist is and what we do.”

Most of that uncertainty is attributable to the relative recent emergence of the field of study. Mississippi State is the only state institution of higher learning offering it as a major, and the land grant university just graduated its first environmental economist last May.

Tree-Up view_rgbBasically, environmental economics studies the balance between the demand for natural resources and the need to protect and nurture the environment. It looks to quantify the cost of development — essentially putting a value on nature and comparing it to the price tag for development.

A recent study by Petrolia is a textbook example of an environmental economist’s work.

Petrolia, a native of New Orleans, looked at Louisiana’s ever-shrinking wetlands and in particular restoration efforts in the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary. He wanted to know how much people were willing to spend, reflecting how much they value the benefits provided by the restoration projects. This figure was then compared to the cost of the project to determine if the project is worth executing. (Note: The survey found that respondents were willing to pay between $909 and $1,751 per household for coastal restoration projects. Added up, that could generate between $105 billion and $201 billion for the Louisiana coast, more than the state’s $50 billion master plan for coastal restoration.)

Other studies follow similar lines. For instance, a group of MSU researchers that included Petrolia looked at coastal homeowners at risk of flooding and why some choose not to purchase flood insurance.

A current study underway looks at perceptions of Gulf of Mexico oysters and marketing outside of the region. In some areas of the country, including the Northeast, Gulf oysters are seen as inferior in quality and taste. Researchers are looking at the issue, trying to determine if there is a market for these Gulf oysters if they are branded and given a “boutique” status.

Petrolia that study is yielding answers about the ongoing cost of the 2010 BP oil spill. Rather than offering respondents a leading question about the spill, the survey asks what factors played into respondent╒s answer about the quality of Gulf oysters.

“We didn’t want to come right out and ask about the spill; didn’t put it in the questionnaire,” Petrolia said. “If we put it in we were concerned that everyone would say, ‘Oh, yeah, that was horrible.’╒ Instead, we subtly asked. I have very, very, very preliminary numbers, but it appears that the oil spill is still on the minds of many people.”

Mississippi State is hoping its graduates go on to similar work. Its bachelor of science in environmental economics and management curriculum takes a problem-solving approach to preparing students to evaluate natural resource management questions from an economic perspective. A number of career paths are open to graduates, including positions with environmental and economic consulting firms, various management and analysis positions with business, and public sector employment with federal and state agencies.

Students will also are well positioned to enter graduate school to pursue careers in research.

A sampling of major coursework includes natural resources economics; environmental law; applied welfare & environmental economics; and, environmental policy.

The program currently contains approximately 20 students. It is also offered as a minor.

“We have students from all over who are interested in numerous fields,” said Petrolia, who earned his Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics, with a concentration in environmental and resource economics, from the University of Minnesota. “One of our best students is interested in the fashion industry. We just want to produce graduates who have their feet on the ground and can think critically. If we do that, we’ll be successful.”

For more on Mississippi State’s environmental economics program, visit www.agecon.msstate.edu/academics/environmental/.



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