EEM Alumni Spotlight: Katie Starr ’16

I have another Environmental Economics & Management (EEM) graduate Q&A for you, this one from a more recent graduate, Katie Starr, who graduated just this past December, 2016.

Katie, where do you currently work, what’s your job title, and what are your overall responsibilities?

I am currently working in Oxford with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. I’m an Environmental Scientist and my overall responsibilities include running air and ozone sampling tests and data collection/analysis. I also handle air pollution complaints and permits for the Northern Mississippi region.

What is a typical day like for you in your job?

A typical day for me is never typical! I could be doing anything from driving to one side of the state to collect data to driving to the other side of the state to investigate a pollution complaint or to finalize a permit for a company that will emit any kind of “pollutant”. I also do a lot of paperwork and data analysis when it comes to permits and complaints. MDEQ has also thrown me into the biochem lab a few times to do some more hands on testing!

How has your background – in particular majoring in EEM – helped prepare you for this experience?

EEM gave me the tools to think outside of the box. I wouldn’t be able to do my job as efficiently if I wasn’t able to look at a problem and think about it from every angle. The analytical skills I gained through EEM have also helped me keep my bearings during our data analysis.

What did you most enjoy about the EEM program?

The thing I appreciated the most about our program was our EEM community. I’m blessed to be able to say that I got to study with some of the brightest students and faculty. Any time I was struggling in a class (or just life in general) there was ALWAYS someone in the department I could turn to; be that study groups and extracurriculars with other students or going directly to the professors. Even now I keep in touch with my old classmates and professors, and I will never be able to thank EEM and the Department of Ag Econ enough for the bonds I’ve made.

What advice would you give to students trying to pick a major or to students thinking about the EEM major?

I was caught between the general business economics and EEM when I first came to Mississippi State. I ultimately chose EEM because the economics was the same (it’s very easy to minor in business econ with EEM) but with EEM you get a deeper look into some of the world’s most pressing issues. Combine the narrowed economic field and the Department’s size and you truly could not get a better program.

Any other comments on the major, your experiences, or anything else?

A++ for EEM (if I were grading)

Thanks, Katie!

EEM Alumni Spotlight: Jonathon Giuffria ’12

Let’s try something new with a Q&A from an EEM grad! Today we feature Jonathon Giuffria, one of our earlier Environmental Economics and Management (EEM) majors, class of 2012. Jonathon has been nice enough to answer a few questions about his experiences in our program and since graduating. (And yes, some of my questions are probably a bit leading…but I did ask Jonathon not to say stuff he didn’t mean! Really, I did.)

Jonathon, what have you done since graduating, up until your current job?

Prior to working with the EPA as an Economist, I traveled extensively overseas, worked with a MS entrepreneur solidifying supply chains, and attained my M.S. in Agricultural and Applied Economics from Virginia Tech.

Where do you currently work, what is your current job title, and what are your overall responsibilities?

I am an Economist with the EPA working in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. This office is charged with administering and implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was recently revamped by Congress in 2016. In general, I work with the Economics and Policy Analysis Branch to provide economic and regulatory support to the overall office. On a day-to-day basis, I help conduct preliminary market analysis reports attempting to discover how industry and the public would be affected by proposed environmental protections, such as chemical labeling or restrictions on consumer chemical uses. Learning the framework of the EPA and how to conduct cost-benefit analyses at MSU was paramount for my success here at EPA.

How has your background – in particular majoring in EEM – helped prepare you for this experience or other experiences you have had?

Many of the economic methodologies practiced within EPA were well covered by the Department. Additionally, the flexibility of the program allowed me to take several policy oriented classes which arguably landed me the job here. Had I not studied the statutes that promulgated the EPA’s creation in Environmental Law and Environmental Policy and had I not known known the fundamentals of a cost-benefit analysis, I firmly believe that I would not have stood a chance in getting a job here.

What did you most enjoy about the EEM program?

For one who likes to branch out of his or her immediate discipline, EEM is a great choice. I was ecstatic to have the flexibility to study Ecology and Forestry Economics one semester and then study Environmental Law and Natural Resource Conservation the next. The faculty were all willing to work with each student truly catering his or her course trajectory based upon his or her own unique interests, be it aspirations to practice law, work in the private sector, or advocate for wetland restoration with a non-profit. An important take-away is that my professors wanted me to have this experience – they were all very willing to work with me and carefully consider my educational aspirations.

What advice would you give for students trying to pick a major or for students thinking about the EEM major?

To the student who wants to take 12 hours a semester and show up to class still asleep, I suggest you pursue other options. However, if you are willing to learn and are passionate about environmental or agricultural issues – the next sustainable food system, fishery economics, how can we change the energy grid, or even moving to downtown DC and directly contributing to the environmental policy process – then I highly suggest that you speak with one of the faculty members in the Department of Agricultural Economics about the Environmental Economics and Management degree.

Any other thoughts on the EEM major, your experiences in the program, extracurriculars at MSU, etc. and how it has shaped your life, helped you achieve goals, etc?

As an EEM student, I was always encouraged by my adviser and professors to pursue my interests. Because of their flexibility and openness, I was able to study abroad in Spain, conduct research in Brazil, and even teach English as a Second Language in Arequipa, Peru. To top it all off, my major adviser* and I shared a common interest – we both studied Music as a secondary major. No matter how eclectic or quickly my interests changed, I was always supported by the Department. I firmly believe that my diversity in education and personal experience is one of the strongest assets that I bring to the workplace, and it all started with pursuing a degree in Environmental Economics and Management.

Any other comments?

College is expensive – better make sure your investment is worthwhile.

Thanks, Jonathon!

*Guess who?

What does your dog doo in the cemetery?

The Dispatch reports that the city of Starkville is struggling with how to handle dog waste in the city’s cemeteries.

Starkville aldermen will let the city’s informal cemetery board decide recommendations on how to curb a growing trend of irresponsible pet owners not cleaning up their animals’ waste after the board took no action on the matter Tuesday.

Several residents spoke out against an increasing amount of students that take their dogs to University Drive’s Oddfellows and Brush Arbor cemeteries and allow them to relieve themselves without properly disposing of the waste. A full list of cemetery board members was not available from city staff as the group is comprised of lot owners and is independent of Starkville’s bureaucracy, but aldermen Tuesday said the committee is split between banning pets from those areas or installing new waste receptacles and signage outlining park rules.

This is a great local example of how to handle a negative externality – when one person’s actions have an unintended negative effect on others. Other examples of actions that create negative externalities might be smoking in public, ringing cowbells at a football game, or a factory polluting the air or water. Here, dog waste is both unpleasant in and of itself for cemetery visitors, but many also believe it is disrespectful in the first place to relieve one’s dog in a cemetery.

In environmental economics, we often teach that a good way to deal with externalities is to make the externality-creating action more expensive. This discourages people from engaging in the action. For example, you could increase the tax on cigarettes, or impose a fine on polluting factories if you wanted to discourage smoking or pollution.

In this case, you could charge dog-owners who don’t pick up after their pet. But it would actually be very difficult to enforce such a policy because it would cost a lot to consistently monitor the cemeteries to see if people don’t pick up their pet’s waste. (Is that how we’d want police officers spending their time, for example?) This pet waste problem is actually a very similar problem to littering – you see signs on the highway about fines imposed for littering, right? But let me ask you: how many of you have ever been fined – or have known someone who has been fined – for littering? I’m going to guess not many of you.

In fact, the littering laws are more enforced by social norms than the threat of fines. That is, parents tell their children not to litter, or friends give their friends who litter scornful looks, or you see an anti-littering television ad or billboard, etc. Changing social norms can be a more efficient way of enforcing policies in which it is difficult or very costly to impose more traditional enforcement mechanisms such as fines or taxes.

So if our goal is to discourage people from not picking up their pet’s waste in the cemeteries, changing social norms might be the way to go. By putting up signs in the cemeteries, people become aware that not picking up pet waste is an undesirable behavior. Also, if pet owners see other pet owners properly disposing of pet waste, they get a signal about what is socially (un)acceptable. So I like the idea of putting up signs. There might also be a fine imposed for violators as well – but, like the littering example, this fine will be of more value as a signal about undesirable behavior than as an actual punishment imposed. But I also like the idea of putting in more trash receptacles in the area – this makes it cheaper to engage in the desired behavior (properly disposing of waste).

Economists teach that people respond to incentives and we usually focus on financial incentives. But social incentives have been shown to be effective in many situations as well. So the next time you see someone who doesn’t properly dispose of pet waste, you might try politely pointing them in the direction of the nearest trash can.

China’s war on pollution

(NY Times) In the first 4 months of 2014, China has imposed more than $1.7 million in fines against polluters.

Zhong Chonglei, an environmental official, told the state-run China News Service that the amount of the fines was double from the same period in 2013. Mr. Zhong said that in March and April, inspections of 3,300 companies and business enterprises took place, and 171 violations were discovered. In March, the Ministry of Environmental Protection reported that 71 of 74 cities monitored by the central government failed to meet minimum air quality standards last year.

Last month, the National People’s Congress, largely a rubber-stamp legislature, approved revisions to China’s environmental protection law that gave officials more power in imposing fines on polluters. Li Keqiang, the Chinese prime minister, has said that China is ready to “declare war against pollution.”

Economists love well-designed economic incentives. Here, polluters have an incentive to not violate pollution standards because if they do, they face a fine. While this is an incentive, it wouldn’t be considered a well-designed one from an economic point of view. The reason is that the pollution standards almost certainly were not designed in the first place with a goal of economic efficiency.

Economists would probably prefer a policy where each polluter is taxed per unit of pollution emissions. That way, polluters who can cut down on emissions more easily (at a lower cost) will do so (because it’s cheaper than paying the emissions fee), and polluters who can’t cut emissions cheaply will pay the fee (because it’s cheaper to pay the fee than cut down on emissions). With this type of policy, emissions are reduced in the cheapest way. The “pollution standards” currently in place probably (I say this based on experience with such policies – I don’t know the details of China’s policy) do not consider the fact that costs of reducing pollution vary across different polluters.

To environmental economists, the fines that polluters face for violating a pollution standard wouldn’t really be considered an “economic incentive” because they are not designed for economic efficiency. Rather they are just a means of enforcing some existing pollution regulation which is probably relatively inefficient from an economic point of view.

Hey New York! We evaluated a similar idea here in MS…

John Whitehead of posted this on his blog today:

Beware when federal officials request innovative ideas

Here is another innovative idea, don’t subsidize risky living:

A string of artificial islands off the coast of New Jersey and New York could blunt the impact of storm surges that proved so deadly during Superstorm Sandy, according to a new proposal.

It’s a big proposal – one that would cost up to $12bn – but it’s also the kind of innovative idea that federal officials requested as they consider how best to protect the heavily populated east coast from future storms. …

The “Blue Dunes” proposal is part of a competition sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to come up with novel ways to protect Americans against the next big storm. It is one of 10 projects that will be evaluated and voted on next week, but there’s no guarantee any of them will receive funding. Other ideas include building sea walls around cities, re-establishing oyster colonies in tidal flats to blunt waves and creating water-absorbent nature and recreational preserves.

The artificial islands plan was created by Stevens Institute, along with the WXY architectural firm and West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture. It is designed to blunt the worst effect of Sandy: the storm surge that pounded the coast. From Maryland to New Hampshire, the storm was blamed for 159 deaths, and New Jersey and New York alone claimed a total of nearly $79bn in damage. …

The islands, 10 to 12 miles off the coast, would be uninhabited, although day trips for surfing or fishing might be allowed, Blumberg said. They would be built by pumping sand atop some hard base made of rock, concrete or other material.

Steve Sandberg, a spokesman for Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said funding for at least some of the proposals is already available as part of the $60bn in Sandy aid that Congress passed last year. Other money could come from disaster recovery grants as well as public and private-sector funding.

A gap would be left between the New York and New Jersey island groups to allow water from the Hudson River to flow out into the ocean.

Blumberg also said computer modeling has shown such islands would have produced vastly lesser damage during Sandy, Hurricane Donna in 1962 and the destructive December 1992 nor’easter.

Aside from the formidable cost, many other obstacles remain. …


The most awesome part of the plan is that the $12 billion is already there! And every taxpayer in the U.S. has contributed! Why am I exclaiming like Mark Trail!

This reminded me of some research on a similar topic – restoring barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi in order to protect the coast from storms – by some researchers in this department….

Kim, G., D. R. Petrolia, and M.G. Interis (Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2011): A Method for Improving Welfare Estimates from Multiple-Referendum Surveys.

In this paper, we estimate the economic value of a project to restore barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi for the purpose of protecting the coast from storms. Our estimate, based on a population of MS of about 3 million people, is a little under $700 million.

It would be cool if someone (or team) estimated the value of the “Blue Dunes” project in New York to see if it exceeds the $12 billion cost of implementation. (Well, they say it will be “evaluated” but who knows what that means!)

By the way, in our paper, we propose a way of estimating the value of the project which increases the confidence we have in our estimate of that value (through a lower variance…for the statistics nerds out there).


New sulfur regulations to increase gas and automobile prices

From the New York Times, the EPA will soon force oil refiners to remove all sulfur from gasoline.

 The Environmental Protection Agency plans to unveil a major new regulation on Monday that forces oil refiners to strip out sulfur, a smog-forming pollutant linked to respiratory disease, from American gasoline blends, according to people familiar with the agency’s plans.

When burned in gasoline, sulfur blocks pollution-control equipment in vehicle engines, which increases tailpipe emissions linked to lung disease, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, aggravated heart disease and premature births and deaths.

The respiratory diseases and other health effects of pollution from automobile tailpipes are known as negative externalities in economics – bad (hence ‘negative’) effects on people who neither produced nor purchased the gasoline that’s being consumed (hence ‘externalities’ because the effects are on people external to the market transaction). The purpose of the regulation is obviously to try to decrease the negative externalities so that there are fewer negative effects on human health. The story continues…

The E.P.A. estimates that the new rule will drastically reduce soot and smog in the United States, and thus rates of diseases associated with those pollutants, while slightly raising the price of both gasoline and cars.

E.P.A. officials estimate that the new regulation will raise the cost of gasoline by about two-thirds of one cent per gallon and add about $75 to the sticker price of cars. But oil refiners say that it will cost their industry $10 billion and raise gasoline costs by up to 9 cents per gallon.

The E.P.A.’s studies conclude that by 2030, the cleaner-burning gasoline will yield between $6.7 billion and $19 billion annually in economic benefits by saving lives and preventing missed work and school days due to illness.

The new rule will have a significant impact on the health of low-income Americans who live near major highways…

But oil refiners say that the new rule will hurt their industry.

There are tradeoffs associated with this policy. It should reduce costs on human health, but will decrease consumer and producer surplus in the automobile and gasoline industries. This policy is said to pass the

One last tidbit from the article:

Mr. Drevna said it was easier to comply with the earlier regulations because removing the first 90 percent of sulfur molecules from gasoline can be done without difficulty. Wringing the last 10 percent of those molecules is harder.

“They’re tough little buggers that don’t want to come out,” Mr. Drevna said. “It’s like getting the last little bit of red wine stain out of a white blouse.”

In environmental economic theory, we learn that marginal cost of reducing pollution increases. That is, it’s relatively cheap to cut back on the first units of pollution but, as you cut back more and more, each additional unit becomes more costly to eliminate. Mr. Drevna’s statement here is consistent with the theory we propagate to our students!