Steady Progress in the ORB Means Improvements in the Gulf of Mexico

dreamstime_m_30998462Many of you have probably detected a theme and undertone to this blog.  That is, for us to fix many of our big scary environmental problems, government and the private sector must find better ways to achieve environmental progress.  I’m a firm believer that to do so we must be willing to explore better ways to mobilize and engage society through appropriate incentives – both carrots and stick.  Thought-leaders and many environmentalists, regardless of political ideology, are increasingly beginning to recognize that top-down command and control regulations are not always sufficient to get the job done.  And many are beginning to acknowledge that some government-centric solutions have failed and must yield to newer and better ways.

My colleagues here at Conservefewell have posted many excellent pieces on critical changes needed to reform these stale approaches to maximize protections of endangered species, air and water quality, and the environment writ large.  One of those big paradigm shifts is the need to establish market-based approaches that create the right incentives and encourage more investment in effective environmental stewardship.   Implicit to these new views, however, is the need for balance and the understanding that neither government nor markets left to their own devices are adequate for the job.   Several great posts on this topic, in case you have missed them, include Tracy Mehan’s Conservation, Markets and Ethics, David Schoenbrod’s Better Tools Needed to Resolve Transboundary Pollutants,  Laura Huggins talking Enviropreneurs and Wolves, or Scott Cameron’s talk of Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation ethic alive and well in Cambodia.   And I would be remiss not to mention the paradigm shattering work of the Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Roger Pielke Jr, and team over at the Breakthrough Institute.

Another great story in the making is that of the Ohio River Basin (ORB) Trading Project, being led by the Electric Power Research Institute’s indomitable Jessica Fox, who may actually have the special recipe and determination for saving the Gulf of Mexico.   Jessica and I go back a long way – so far back, I can’t even remember –  and we’ve had lots of fun dreaming about new and better ways to safeguard the environment.  In this multi-state trading project, in addition to U.S. EPA, USDA, the ORB Interstate Compact, power plants, farmers, and environmental groups, Jessica has assembled the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, and has her sights locked-in on bringing even more states and stakeholders to the table.  For those who are wondering what this “trading” stuff is all about.  It’s about accelerating the pace of environmental restoration using greater flexibility, scientific rigor and collaboration.  In this case, Jessica and her team understand that by allowing electric utilities to pay farmers living within the same watershed to implement best practices to reduce excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) running off their land – like fencing cows out of streams – in lieu of compelling utilities to install technologies with much higher marginal costs in terms of pollution reduction, we can make progress in restoring the Gulf of Mexico, potentially at a fraction of the cost of a top-down command and control approach.

By engaging society’s “little platoons,” in the words of Edmund Burke, projects like this bring people together with big ideas – motivated in part or whole by “doing good” – with enduring values well beyond the immediate focus.  Roger Scruton speaks of this in terms of oikophilia, a Greek term for “love of home” and local affections that motivate improving one’s surrounding and the place in which one lives, plays and works.  (Scruton’s theory has been critiqued by many, including by a young philosophy student in Queensland, A Critique of Roger Scruton’s ‘Green Philosophy’:  Conservationist conservatism or contradictory conservatism? which rightly or wrongly points out some of the weaknesses of this theory).   But to explain the ongoing success in the Ohio River Basin is more than just the product of “love of home” or local affections, it’s the unfolding of government and civil society working together to accomplish important things through a shared vision and courage.

Jessica is hosting a one-day event in Cincinnati on March 11 to reveal the progress that is being made, and in a milestone moment, will officially transfer the credits from the project’s first trade.  You will also be privy to the sharing of those who belong to the “little platoons,” e.g., the local farmers, environmentalists and credit buyers, and learn from the perspectives of key federal and state agency staff.   Here are more details for those who may be interested in traveling to the great city of Cinci, and learning about this important project. 

Ohio River Basin Trading Project
Stewardship Credit Transaction Event 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Eastern Time

Westin Cincinnati
21 E. 5th Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202 USA

Business Casual

View Event Summary


Tuesday, March 4, 2014