Future ecological risk assessments may chart the values, and the odds.
There’s a one-in-five chances that vast pools of economically recoverable oil lie beneath the Artic national wildlife refuge. But what are the odds that searching for that oil will have adverse effects on that environment?
Under the mandated choreography of environmental politics, when drilling wasproposed in the 1980s, Congress turns to scientists for advice. A score of US fishing and wildlife service (USFWS) biologists studied the possible effects of various oil-development scenarios on animal and their habitats, and they produce an environmental impact statement in 1987.
Missing from the biologists ‘reports were quantitative estimates of the probability of adverse effects. Some day suchodds-making—already common in health-risk studies –might gauge environmental risks.
The lack of quantitative measures’ today may be undermining environmental protection efforts, proponents of risk assessment argue. Recently, Congress when considering a bill to open the Artic refuge to drilling had before it the interior department´s value of potential oil production: $79.4 billion. It did not have anyestimated value for polar bears, wolves, caribou, musk-oxen, tundra swans, the costal environment and the rest of what has been called “America’s Serengeti”.
The fledgling practice of ecological risk assessment may provide both the odds and the values for major environmental decisions in the future. Adherents for the practice are still groping for a formal definition. Roughly, ecological riskassessment boils down to a scientific methodology for characterizing health or changes in health in an ecological system, says Mark Harwell, coordinator of the program on global change at Miami´s Rosenstein School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Risk assessment is much different from the familiar environmental-impact-statement process, which is a series of questions prescribes by state orfederal laws, Harwell say. The answers to those questions demonstrate only that the government went through the process and considered each item. Individual environmental impact statements may or may not have scientific rigor , he says.
“Ideally, it would be the output of every risk assessment to have some sort of frequency distribution of outcomes, and the decision-makers would choose where along thatdecision curve they´re willing to be .Harwell says. In the simplest of example, wetland habitats destruction might be plotted on one axis and biological diversity on another. But in many cases, only qualitative estimates of outcomes may be possible, he adds.
Risk assessment is a political concern
As the methodology evolves, the question remains whether valuation-figuring the cost ofenvironmental impacts-should be performed by risk assessors or by policy makers. No current laws require ecological risk assessment, but Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) administrator William Reilly and the agency´s Science Advisory Board have been moving ecological concerns(including both risk assessment and valuation)nearer the top of the government´s environmental agenda(BioScience41:451).
Reillyand other proponents of risk assessment want to use it to provide a scientific basis for the government´s environmental priorities. By assessing relative risks, they hope to arrive at a rough rank order of environmental threats. The current EPA agenda, the argue, it’s too often set by shifting public perception of risk or by interest-group pressures.
The House bill for EPA research appropriationsfor FY 1992 included provisions directing Reilly to establish a separate research program to improve identification, assessment, and comparison of risk to ecosystems, and it calls for improved methods for valuing natural resources and long-term environmental effects. The bill´s language echoed recommendations made late last year by the agent’s science advisory board in its report Reducing Risk:...