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13.3: Natural Resources and Conservation

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Distinguish between exhaustible and renewable natural resources.
    2. Discuss the market for exhaustible natural resources in terms of factors that influence both demand and supply.
    3. Discuss the market for renewable natural resources and relate the market outcome to carrying capacity.
    4. Explain and illustrate the concept of economic rent.

    Natural resources are the gifts of nature. They include everything from oil to fish in the sea to magnificent scenic vistas. The stock of a natural resource is the quantity of the resource with which the earth is endowed. For example, a certain amount of oil lies in the earth, a certain population of fish live in the sea, and a certain number of acres make up an area such as Yellowstone National Park or Manhattan. These stocks of natural resources, in turn, can be used to produce a flow of goods and services. Each year, we can extract a certain quantity of oil, harvest a certain quantity of fish, and enjoy a certain number of visits to Yellowstone.

    As with capital, we examine the allocation of natural resources among alternative uses across time. By definition, natural resources cannot be produced. Our consumption of the services of natural resources in one period can affect their availability in future periods. We must thus consider the extent to which the expected demands of future generations should be taken into account when we allocate natural resources.

    Natural resources often present problems of property rights in their allocation. A resource for which exclusive property rights have not been defined will be allocated as a common property resource. In such a case, we expect that the marketplace will not generate incentives to use the resource efficiently. In the absence of government intervention, natural resources that are common property may be destroyed. In this section, we shall consider natural resources for which exclusive property rights have been defined. The public sector’s role in the allocation of common property resources is investigated in the chapter on the environment.

    We can distinguish two categories of natural resources, those that are renewable and those that are not. A renewable natural resource is one whose services can be used in one period without necessarily reducing the stock of the resource that will be available in subsequent periods. The fact that they can be used in such a manner does not mean that they will be; renewable natural resources can be depleted. Wilderness areas, land, and water are renewable natural resources. The consumption of the services of an exhaustible natural resource, on the other hand, necessarily reduces the stock of the resource. Oil and coal are exhaustible natural resources.

    Exhaustible Natural Resources

    Owners of exhaustible natural resources can be expected to take the interests of future as well as current consumers into account in their extraction decisions. The greater the expected future demand for an exhaustible natural resource, the greater will be the quantity preserved for future use.

    Expectations and Resource Extraction

    Suppose you are the exclusive owner of a deposit of oil in Wyoming. You know that any oil you pump from this deposit and sell cannot be replaced. You are aware that this is true of all the world’s oil; the consumption of oil inevitably reduces the stock of this resource.

    If the quantity of oil in the earth is declining and the demand for this oil is increasing, then it is likely that the price of oil will rise in the future. Suppose you expect the price of oil to increase at an annual rate of 15%.

    Given your expectation, should you pump some of your oil out of the ground and sell it? To answer that question, you need to know the interest rate. If the interest rate is 10%, then your best alternative is to leave your oil in the ground. With oil prices expected to rise 15% per year, the dollar value of your oil will increase faster if you leave it in the ground than if you pump it out, sell it, and purchase an interest-earning asset. If the market interest rate were greater than 15%, however, it would make sense to pump the oil and sell it now and use the revenue to purchase an interest-bearing asset. The return from the interest-earning asset, say 16%, would exceed the 15% rate at which you expect the value of your oil to increase. Higher interest rates thus reduce the willingness of resource owners to preserve these resources for future use.

    Figure 13.8 Future Generations and Exhaustible Natural Resources


    The current demand D for services of an exhaustible resource is given by the marginal revenue product (MRP). S1 reflects the current marginal cost of extracting the resource, the prevailing interest rate, and expectations of future demand for the resource. The level of current consumption is thus at Q1. If the interest rate rises, the supply curve shifts to S2, causing the price of the resource to fall to P2 and the quantity consumed to rise to Q2. A drop in the interest rate shifts the supply curve to S3, leading to an increase in price to P3 and a decrease in consumption to Q3.

    The supply of an exhaustible resource such as oil is thus governed by its current price, its expected future price, and the interest rate. An increase in the expected future price—or a reduction in the interest rate—reduces the supply of oil today, preserving more for future use. If owners of oil expect lower prices in the future, or if the interest rate rises, they will supply more oil today and conserve less for future use. This relationship is illustrated in Figure 13.8 “Future Generations and Exhaustible Natural Resources”. The current demand D for these services is given by their marginal revenue product (MRP). Suppose S1 reflects the current marginal cost of extracting the resource, the prevailing interest rate, and expectations of future demand for the resource. If the interest rate increases, owners will be willing to supply more of the natural resource at each price, thereby shifting the supply curve to the right to S2. The current price of the resource will fall. If the interest rate falls, the supply curve for the resource will shift to the left to S3 as more owners of the resource decide to leave more of the resource in the earth. As a result, the current price rises.

    Resource Prices Over Time

    Since using nonrenewable resources would seem to mean exhausting a fixed supply, then one would expect the prices of exhaustible natural resources to rise over time as the resources become more and more scarce. Over time, however, the prices of most exhaustible natural resources have fluctuated considerably relative to the prices of all other goods and services. Figure 13.9 “Natural Resource Prices, 1980–2007” shows the prices of four major exhaustible natural resources from 1980 to 2007. Prices have been adjusted for inflation to reflect the prices of these resources relative to other prices.

    During the final two decades of the twentieth century, exhaustible natural resource prices were generally falling or stable. With the start of the current century, their prices have been rising. In short, why do prices of natural resources fluctuate as they do? Should the process of continuing to “exhaust” them just drive their prices up over time?

    Figure 13.9 Natural Resource Prices, 1980–2007


    The chart shows changes in the prices of five exhaustible resources—chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten (relative to the prices of other goods and services)—from 1890–2003.

    Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, online; U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review, online.

    In setting their expectations, people in the marketplace must anticipate not only future demand but future supply as well. Demand in future periods could fall short of expectations if new technologies produce goods and services using less of a natural resource. That has clearly happened. The quantity of energy—which is generally produced using exhaustible fossil fuels—used to produce a unit of output has fallen by more than half in the last three decades. At the same time, rising income levels around the world, particularly in China and India over the last two decades, have led to increased demand for energy. Supply increases when previously unknown deposits of natural resources are discovered and when technologies are developed to extract and refine resources more cheaply. Figure 13.10 “An Explanation for Falling Resource Prices” shows that discoveries that reduce the demand below expectations and increase the supply of natural resources can push prices down in a way that people in previous periods might not have anticipated. This scenario explains the fall in some prices of natural resources in the latter part of the twentieth century. To explain the recent rise in exhaustible natural resources prices, we can say that the factors contributing to increased demand for energy and some other exhaustible natural resources were outweighing the factors contributing to increased supply, resulting in higher prices—a scenario opposite to what is shown in Figure 13.10 “An Explanation for Falling Resource Prices”. This upward trend began to reverse itself again in late 2008, as the world economies began to slump.

    Figure 13.10 An Explanation for Falling Resource Prices


    Demand for resources has increased over time from D1 to D2, but this shift in demand is less than it would have been (D3) if technologies for producing goods and services using less resource per unit of output had not been developed. Supply of resources has increased from S1 to S2 as a result of the discovery of deposits of natural resources and/or development of new technologies for extracting and refining resources. As a result, the prices of many natural resources have fallen.

    Will we ever run out of exhaustible natural resources? Past experience suggests that we will not. If no new technologies or discoveries that reduce demand or increase supply occur, then resource prices will rise. As they rise, consumers of these resources will demand lower quantities of these resources. Eventually, the price of a particular resource could rise so high that the quantity demanded would fall to zero. At that point, no more of the resource would be used. There would still be some of the resource in the earth—it simply would not be practical to use more of it. The market simply will not allow us to “run out” of exhaustible natural resources.