Making the Case for Ecosystem Services Valuation

On June 14, 2010, BP pledged $20 billion to an escrow account to pay for damage caused by the April 22, 2010 sinking of its Deepwater Horizon drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana.  The beneficiaries of this fund are expected to be fishermen, hoteliers, charter-boat operators, and other Gulf-coast business owners who have lost income, as well as states and other entities with clean-up costs.

However, whether payment will ever be made for the loss of 'ecosystem services' is unknown.  Ecosystem services benefit everyone but are owned by no one, such as the carbon sequestration provided by marsh plants and ocean plankton, or the buffering that coastal marshes provide to nearby communities from the Gulf's many hurricanes.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska raised similar questions, and sparked a flurry of research in the once-obscure discipline of ecological economics, which seeks to estimate quantities such as the 'replacement cost' of an ecosystem — or even an individual organism. (For example, killer whales cost $300,000 at the time; cormorants were $310.) The Gulf oil spill seems likely to inspire another surge of research in this field.

Ecological economist Robert Costanza at the University of Vermont in Burlington has already estimated a $34 billion to $670 billion price tag for the loss of Gulf ecosystem services.

Read more in "A Full Accounting", in the June 24, 2010 issue of Nature.
Nature, Volume:465, Pages:985–986