Mobility Data Has a Promising Future in NRDA-Human Use Analysis of Oil Spill Impacts

June 17, 2024

By: Mike Rockel, and Andrew Bechard, PhD, Mark Rockel, PhD

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process evaluates the impacts of oil spills and hazardous substance releases on public natural resources in the US and determines appropriate restoration actions. For oil spills (except those involving hazardous substances), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulations outline a three-phase NRDA process involving:
  • A pre-assessment screen to determine the likelihood of environmental damage;
  • Restoration planning involving:
    • an injury assessment to quantify the impacts on natural resources;
    • restoration assessment to identify primary and compensatory restoration actions needed to return resources to baseline conditions and compensate for interim losses, and;
  • The implementation of the restoration work itself.

Federal, state, and tribal trustees work together to conduct scientific studies, quantify injuries, and determine damages. The goal is to restore or compensate for lost public uses of the injured natural resources. The determination of human use injuries is a critical element in NRDA. Human use injuries refer to the lost public uses or services the injured natural resources provide due to an oil spill or hazardous substance release. Examples of human use injuries include lost recreational opportunities like fishing, hunting, boating, swimming, or hiking in the affected area; reduced aesthetic value or enjoyment of natural areas due to pollution or environmental degradation; diminished subsistence uses of natural resources by Indigenous communities; and reduced commercial activities like fishing, tourism, or other economic uses dependent on the injured resources.

Human use injury assessments aim to document and quantify human use losses by determining the geographic and temporal extent of the lost public uses and estimating the number of user-days lost for activities like fishing, hunting, beach visitation, etc. This is accomplished by considering non-market values like willingness-to-pay surveys and similar valuation approaches to derive monetary estimates of the value communities and individuals are willing to pay to enjoy resources before injury in a spill event.

The goals are to implement restoration projects and to compensate the public for the interim human use losses incurred until the injured resources and services fully recover to baseline conditions.

Current Limitations When Assessing Recreational Injuries

Human recreation injuries are identified using various data collection methods, many of which can be time-consuming and expensive. Several of the current approaches also have other drawbacks, and the reliability of the data could put a defensible injury claim into question. For example, spot surveys conducted by surveyors at the scene of a spill typically involve physically counting recreators, a time-consuming process. During aerial flights, surveyors will photograph recreation areas to count recreators within the photos. Flights costs can be expensive, and the results reflect activities only at specific times of day and weather conditions. Mail and telephone surveys, in which respondents state their preferences for different recreational activities, can be highly variable. Lastly, readily available historical data can be sparse and sometimes unavailable in the spill area.

Using Mobility Data to Aid Human Use Assessments

Mobility data can be a valuable tool for analyzing the human use impacts of an oil spill on natural resources. Mobility data is information that records or describes the movement patterns and flows of people, vehicles, goods, and other objects. It encompasses various data types that capture how individuals and materials traverse and navigate the physical world. These data can include the movement of pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles (cars, trucks, buses), public transportation, rideshare services, and goods/freight. The data can be sourced from GPS data, mobile device locations, traffic cameras, public transit systems, rideshare providers, social media check-ins, and other location-based technologies.

For NRDA purposes, mobile device location data can track how people’s movements changed in response to an oil spill event, such as avoiding contaminated areas or beaches. This data can quantify reductions in visitation rates and recreational use of affected natural areas. In addition, by analyzing the home locations inferred from mobility data, areas with populations most impacted by the spill in terms of lost access to natural resources can be identified. This allows targeting restoration efforts to communities disproportionately affected by a spill event.

Models used to calculate the economic impacts and monetary losses can be determined more precisely by quantifying changes in mobility patterns to businesses, tourism sites, and fishing areas in different sectors and regions affected by a spill event. This data informs damage assessments for lost revenue and economic injuries.

Collected over time, mobility data helps to predict trends, forecast demand, benchmark performance, and add context to other datasets, such as the long-term recovery of the resources and the return to pre-spill human activities. Comparing mobility data before, during, and after a spill event allows long-term monitoring of when and how human use patterns return to normal levels as the environment recovers. This information informs the timeline for restoring lost uses.

How Montrose Can Help

In summary, mobility data provides a powerful lens into how oil spills disrupt human interactions with the natural environment across space and time. This information is critical for assessing damages and guiding restoration efforts. New data collection approaches often bring new insights and considerations. Overall, the key is implementing technical safeguards, operational practices, and governance policies that uphold individual privacy rights while enabling the societal benefits mobility data can provide when used responsibly.

Economists in the Ecosystem Economics practice within Montrose Advisory Services are experts in collecting and evaluating critical human use information for NRDA. They conduct surveys and studies to quantify the economic value people and communities place on natural resources for activities like recreation, tourism, and other uses. This human use data is then integrated into NRDA models and analyses to estimate the compensatory restoration required to make the public whole for losses resulting from environmental injuries caused by oil spills or hazardous substance releases.

Contact us today to learn how we can help with your NRDA.

Mike Rockel
Senior Associate Economist
Mike Rockel is an economist and finance professional with ten years of experience using discounted cash flow analysis, benefit-cost analysis, benefit transfer, and EPA tools like the BEN model and EIO-LCA to characterize economic benefits, costs, and damages for numerous industries. He advises companies and their legal representation on the appropriate application and use of economic theory and models.

Andrew Bechard, Ph.D.

Dr. Andrew Bechard is an environmental economist with nearly ten years of experience advising clients on the valuation of natural resources and socio-economic activities. Dr. Bechard worked for several years with Rhode Island’s state government on aquaculture’s economic impact and advised on sustainable oyster and shellfish harvesting during harmful algal blooms. He also worked with several Southwest Florida counties and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to increase public awareness of seafood health alerts during algal blooms. Additionally, he analyzed the economic impacts of seafood restrictions for members of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance and Southern Offshore Fishing Association. His research was used in a technical report supporting the U.S. Congress’ South Florida Clean Coastal Waters Act of 2021.

Mark Rockel, PhD
Senior Associate Economist
Dr. Mark Rockel is an environmental economist with over 40 years of experience in natural resource damage and economic impact assessment. He has successfully used the BEN model to aid and defend clients from Clean Water Act suits.

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