Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Department of Commerce Natural Capital Business Roundtables

My last post was about my overall experience working at NOAA and being a Knauss Fellow, so I thought I’d use this one to go a bit deeper into one of the projects I lead, the Department of Commerce Natural Capital Business Roundtables.

Natural capital, the world’s stocks of natural assets such as water, air, geology, and living things, is critical for economic growth and human survival. Natural capital, just like financial and human capital, is a key component of business operations, and smart business decisions necessitate accounting for both the natural capital assets a company uses, and the natural capital its operations impact.

My team is traveling to four coastal regions - the Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Silicon Valley - to engage businesses and other external partners in day-long workshops on case studies, strategies, and challenges for conducting corporate natural capital work. In addition to facilitating peer-to-peer learning among companies, we’re gaining insight into how the Department of Commerce can better meet business needs in the natural capital space.

I’ve heard some pretty inspiring examples of how companies are integrating natural capital into their business operations. For example, Dow Chemical Company’s first constructed wetland system for treating industrial wastewater had a capital cost of just $1.4 million, compared to $40 million for the next best option. It filters water better than other systems, requires fewer resources for operations and maintenance, and produces a host of co-benefits including habitat for native wildlife.
Our first Natural Capital Business Roundtable, which engaged the oil and gas, petrochemical, and ports industries at Rice University’s Center for Energy Studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy

The backbone of this effort is a cross-bureau team in the Department of Commerce, including NOAA, the Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I’ve had the opportunity to work with some pretty cool people, including NOAA’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management, the Department of Commerce Chief Economist, and the Commerce Chief Data Officer. I’ve also engaged with innovative companies like Entergy Corp and Bechtel Infrastructure, and natural capital experts at NGO’s and academic institutions.

Leading this project has taught me how to facilitate decision making and provide strategic direction for a team whose members all have different levels of subject matter expertise and sit in different levels in a hierarchical organization. It has also taught me a lot about effective external engagement, and helped me realize that I really love the collaborative, perspective-broadening work of engaging people from across multiple sectors towards a common goal.

In December I will head to Stanford for the final regional roundtable, and I’m currently planning the Department of Commerce National Natural Capital Summit, which will take place in early 2016. Read more about the Natural Capital Business Roundtables on the ESA blog, and follow us on Twitter: @DOCEconomist.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Fun First Quarter as the First IJC Fellow

Hello Everyone!

My name is Ankita Mandelia, and I am the first Michigan Sea Grant – International Joint Commission Fellow!  Being at the International Joint Commission is very cool – I have always wanted to work on large-scale environmental policy, and growing up in Michigan, I have a vested interest in the lakes.  My interests are primarily in chemical life cycle analysis and the Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs), since my master’s thesis focused on polychlorinated biphenyl compounds and metals in the Torch Lake Area of Concern.

My living situation is unique in that I live at home with my parents and cross an international border every day.  The border crossing is not too bad if you’re patient, and it is significantly improved once you get a NEXUS card.  The IJC Great Lakes Regional Office (GLRO) is located very close to the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel, and from our office we have an excellent view of the Detroit River; though I am on the opposite side of the building overlooking Ouellette Avenue, specifically right at where my grandparents used to live.

The view from my office.
A view from the conference room: Riverside Drive, Windsor.
A view from the conference room: Detroit Skyline.

For my fellowship, I am assisting two of the IJC Boards with their activities (such as summarizing teleconferences and reviewing ongoing and potential contract work): the Health Professionals Advisory Board (HPAB) and the Science Advisory Board’s (SAB’s) Research Coordination Committee (RCC).  The HPAB “provides advice on clinical and public health issues related to the transboundary environment, and is responsible for recommending ways to communicate about these issues with the public and stakeholder groups.” (http://ijc.org/en_/boards)  The RCC is part of the Science Advisory Board, which is mandated by the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) to “provide advice on research to the Commission and to the Great Lakes Water Quality Board.” (2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement)

One of the projects I have been helping the RCC with is the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Research Inventory System (RIS) revision.  The RIS is intended to be a binational clearinghouse of information regarding Great Lakes research, but it needs to be significantly updated.  The idea is that the end user can find out what research is being conducted in the basin and access information about these projects.  I helped to write a report to the Commissioners explaining this need and asking for the means to move forward with this project.

My primary, year-long project is on what happens to AOCs once they are delisted.  AOCs are environmentally degraded areas within the Great Lakes basin, and they are of concern because they have experienced extreme pollution and ultimately flow into the Great Lakes.  Well-established mechanisms exist to address and ultimately delist each AOC’s beneficial use impairments (BUIs), and in turn delist sites from the AOC list; however, it is currently unclear what happens to AOCs once they have been delisted.  The objective of my project is to create a guidebook-type document for newly-delisted AOCs to help them maintain their restored site.

In addition to working on projects, I have witnessed the inner workings of the International Joint Commission.  Commissioners sometimes visit the GLRO, which is a great way to meet and talk with them about current work; I met U.S. Commissioner Dereth Glance, U.S. Commission Chair Lana Pollack and Canadian Commission Chair Gordon Walker this way.  One major event this past month was the IJC Executive Meeting, during which IJC Staff met with the Commissioners to discuss current work and seek decisions to move forward on several fronts.  The IJC is a consensus-based organization, which means there are many mechanisms in place to ensure that everyone who should have input on a decision does.

So far I have had ample opportunity to network by attending three conferences.  The first conference was the International Environmental Indicators Conference, where I met scientists working on indicators from all over the world; it was especially helpful to meet scientists working on indicators in the AOCs.  The second meeting was the Sea Grant Great Lakes Network Meeting, where I met people working on many of the issues on the IJC’s radar, particularly on-the-ground outreach of these issues.  Everyone at this conference was really friendly, but I most enjoyed spending some quality time with the Michigan Sea Grant folks!  Finally, last week I attended my first Healing Our Waters (HOW) conference; which I was eager to attend because I have been working on Great Lakes issues for the past few years and have previously attended Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. with the coalition.  This conference was excellent – I learned something new in just about every session, and I got to spend some quality time with IJC folks outside of the office – including two of the Commissioners.  I also ran into Sam Molnar, the Great Lakes Commission fellow!

GLC Fellow Sam Molnar and me on the Chicago River Boat Tour field trip during the HOW Conference.
Now I am back at the office refocusing on my groundwork.  So far this fellowship has been excellent – I work on interesting projects that will have a real impact on Great Lakes restoration, I meet a lot of people I can learn from, and I travel!  And all this just in the first quarter!  I’m looking forward to what’s next.

Until next time,