The term "ecological services" is bandied about frequently by environmental advocates trying to protect nature. The idea is that the environment in an untouched state often performs services of economic value; replacing them, in the event that environment is destroyed or compromised, would cost real dollars. The government officials and companies they're trying to persuade are often dubious, through, when they hear about a local wetlands absorbing flood waters or filtering out water pollutants.
One of the best-known cases of ecological services receiving their due is in New York, where hundreds of thousands acres of the Catskill Mountains are protected from development in order to preserve the quality of New York City's drinking water. The value of forested mountains is at least $6 billion, the cost of a filtration plant New York doesn't have to build.
So how much is the Gulf of Mexico worth? And how much of its value is at risk from the BP oil spill that started after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20?
We have an answer, or at least an estimate for the value of one critical piece of the Gulf Coast, from a report by Earth Economics executive director David Batker, released just before the spill. The value of the Mississippi Delta's ecological services is between $12 billion and $47 billion annually. Environmental Defense Fund, which helped fund the study and is promoting Batker's results, notes that the value is arguably greater than BP's market capitalization before the disaster ($189 billion, though that has dropped precipitously since the spill).
That value comes in the form of water supply, water flow regulation, hurricane protection, food production, raw materials production, recreational value, carbon sequestration, atmospheric composition regulation, waste treatment, aesthetic value and habitat value.
"These huge numbers show that the BP oil spill, hurricanes and continued wetland degradation threaten not only the Gulf regional economy, but the national economy," Batker said. "Unlike the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in 1989, we now have solid economics to put a value on the damage done to natural systems and the resulting harm to people. The Gulf economy needs nature to survive."
So that's what is at risk. What's the solution?
According to Batker and Environmental Defense Fund, the answer is a multi-billion dollar restoration project for Gulf wetlands. They've been damaged by decades of channeling, filling and starvation (of mud, since the Mississippi has itself been radically altered, disrupting the natural outflow of sediment). Overall, the Mississippi Delta has lost enough land to cover Delaware, and then some. Restoration would, if you consider the ecological services of the natural environment, be worth $62 billion annually.
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