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Reveal the Invisible Price Tag

by Editorial Board
Capital Press, June 2, 2011

Cartoon by Rik Dalvit Consumer groups often talk about the need for labels and other types of full disclosure. Here's one label we can all support. Put a price tag on the cost of everything the Endangered Species Act requires of utilities, irrigation districts, farmers, ranchers and local, state and federal governments.

It would be an astronomical figure.

U.S. Reps. Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris Rodgers have proposed a variation on that theme. The Washington state Republicans have offered a bill that would tell Pacific Northwest electricity customers how much they pay toward ESA requirements. The Bonneville Power Administration, which operates most of the dams along the Columbia River, is the federal agency with the highest ESA compliance costs in the nation, according to McMorris Rodgers. BPA estimates that it spends about $500 million annually on the ESA. That is paid by consumers in the form of higher power bills.

Similarly, four dams on the Klamath River are under consideration for breaching as part of a deal to satisfy the ESA listing of fish. PacifiCorp, owner of the dams and a signatory to the agreement, taps its customers each month in their electricity bills for its $184 million share of the cost. It would be nice if the amount was also labeled "Endangered Species Act expense."

Californians will also get to pay their state's $250 million portion of the cost, courtesy of the ESA.

Across the country, the costs associated with the ESA have piled up since 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed it into law. The costs are mentioned in the Capital Press regularly. Just last week, we reported that owners of a dam on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon had built a $100 million fish collection facility to accommodate the ESA. Irrigation districts across the West have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to meet ESA specifications. Farmers and ranchers have paid millions of dollars for improvements to their operations to meet ESA concerns.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracks some of the costs of the ESA. In 2009 -- the most recent year tallied -- the cost of the ESA to the federal government was $1.47 billion. The cost to state governments was $79.5 million.

That's just part of the picture. Those figures don't include the cost of the Equal Access to Justice Act and the Judgment Fund, which allows environmental litigants to tap the federal treasury in the name of the ESA. They file lawsuit after lawsuit against the federal government hoping to convince a friendly judge that the ESA was not followed to the letter. In doing so, they hope to hit the jackpot and get their exorbitant expenses paid.

The amount of environmental litigation in the U.S. is staggering, according to Wyoming lawyer Karen Budd-Falen, who tracks those cases.

She found that from 2000 to 2009, five environmental groups -- Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense Fund, Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club -- filed 2,819 cases, all against the federal government.

"If you add the 'Western environmental organizations' like the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and Forest (or now WildEarth) Guardians, that number rises to 3,313 cases," Budd-Falen said on her website.

Taxpayers face a double dip. They have to foot the bills for the environmentalist lawyers -- and for the government lawyers.

Only when taxpayers know the full cost of the ESA, which has failed to help more than a handful of species fully recover, can we determine whether the massive expense is worthwhile. In this era of $1.5 trillion federal budget deficits, any federal law that is both expensive and ineffective deserves a close look.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has proposed a bill that would chip away at the ESA expense and add accountability to the EAJA. It would require that anyone seeking EAJA funds have a "direct and personal monetary interest" in the case and caps attorney's fees at $175 an hour and total reimbursements at $200,000 per case. It also limits the annual number of EAJA awards to three per organization.

So yes, we need a new kind of label for the ESA -- and all federal programs, for that matter. It's called a price tag.

Related Sites:
Bill Will Lead to Better Decision-Making on Hydropower Representative McMorris-Rodgers, May 6, 2011

Editorial Board
Reveal the Invisible Price Tag
Capital Press, June 2, 2011

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