Environmental Buyouts: Protection at a Price

By Fields, Scott | Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Environmental Buyouts: Protection at a Price


Fields, Scott, Environmental Health Perspectives


Environmentalists working with the notion that the dollar can be more powerful than the regulatory sword have in the last two decades turned increasingly to an alternative strategy for preventing some types of potential pollution. Rather than lobby or regulate to stop such activities as mining of minerals and drilling for oil, governments, nonprofit groups, and other organizations have started to buy land--or mineral rights to land--to stop the activities from starting at all.

For the most part, the environmental community has welcomed these "white knights" armed with buyout dollars. But buyout critics--who span the political spectrum from far right to far left--claim that although buyouts appear on the surface to be an easy way out, they disrupt the marketplace and offer incentives for bad behavior.

Swap Meet

Some buyouts are meant to protect the species, landforms, or other features of a parcel of land, while others are meant to prevent polluting activities, such as mining or oil exploration, from taking place on the land. Regardless of the goal of the purchase, the issues linked to buyouts are essentially the same, says John Echeverria, executive director of the Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

Buyouts are one of four models of environmental protection. The other models are regulation, in which the state makes rules to protect the environment; free market environmentalism, in which no governmental activity, whether regulation or buyout, is allowed; and periodic payments, in which the government, a nonprofit organization, or even a private party makes regular payments to landholders who in exchange agree to restrictions on how they use their property for a limited period of time. The mix between these strategies varies with the political climate. Currently in the United States, Echeverria says, regulation has been at best stagnating in the mix. In some senses, environmental activists have been left little choice but to buy to protect.

An environmental buyout is basically a swap--money for land, money for mineral rights, land for land, land for mineral rights. Buying land to protect it or its contents is nothing new; in the United States, the concept really took off in the 1980s. During this period, public interest in the environment germinated hundreds of small land conservancy organizations and helped the Nature Conservancy--which has the mission of buying land to protect it--to become the largest environmental group in the world.

In the last two decades, governments at all levels started informal buyout programs as well, although Celia Boddington, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), says the BLM has, to her knowledge, never had a formal pollution-prevention buyout program. Instead, any purchases have been generated on an ad hoc basis by the BLM, Congress, or high-level administrators such as former secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt, frequently after lobbying by environmental groups.

The last few years have seen a handful of pollution-prevention buyouts in the United States. For example, in 2000 the U.S. Department of the Interior paid $1 million to close the White Vulcan Mine, an open-pit pumice extraction facility near Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2002 American Electric Power engineered a buyout of virtually the entire town of Cheshire, Ohio, paying the 200 or so residents $20 million for their homes and their promise to not sue for exposure to past pollution from the company's nearby coal-fired power plant.

Also in 2002, the Bush administration agreed to spend $235 million to buy back oil and natural gas rights--which the federal government had sold to Chevron, Conoco, and the Murphy Exploration and Production Company in the 1980s--in the Everglades and in waters near the Florida Panhandle. This agreement, said President Bush at a 30 May 2002 news conference, will protect about 765,000 acres in the Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge from drilling or spills related to drilling. …

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