An Illiquid Market in the Desert: The Role of Interest Groups in Shaping Environmental Regulation

Eric C. Edwards, Oscar Cristi, Gonzalo Edwards, Gary D. Libecap

NBER Working Paper No. 21869
Issued in January 2016
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Environment and Energy Economics

We present a lobby model to explain the adoption and persistence of seemingly costly environmental policies relative to the likely benefits generated. The arguments of the model are illustrated by water trade restrictions for mining firms in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The area is one of the driest in the world but also the world’s top copper producer. Due to regulation of access to local water in the region, firms have begun using desalinated water at a cost of up to $19,542 per m3/day while agricultural water trades at median price of $343 per m3/day. We explore how governmental maintenance of environmental and indigenous water supplies through restrictions on water trades causes these large price differentials. We provide a simple framework that explains how this type of policy can be supported under reasonable assumptions about lobbying. Interest group lobbying, limited information to unorganized general citizens about policy costs and benefits, and their associated distribution can lead to strong regulation, even when the protected environmental areas and agricultural populations are small and isolated. Difference- in-difference modeling of sector prices indicates that after an abrupt increase in regulatory denials, prices diverged in a manner consistent with the lobbying model. Using market price and desalination cost data, policy costs are estimated at $6.15 billion dollars or approximately $350 per citizen, which may or may not equate to perceived general benefits.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21869

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