Economist, EPA adviser to join Brooks School, Atkinson

An environmental economist and public policy expert who has advised presidents and the Environmental Protection Agency will join Cornell July 1 as the newest hire in the provost’s Sustainability Radical Collaboration initiative.

Sheila Olmstead, the Dean Rusk Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, will be appointed as a professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and as a Cornell Atkinson Scholar.

Sheila Olmstead

Olmstead studies the economic dimensions of environmental policies, especially those related to water quantity and quality. Her research has influenced academic thinking and regulatory policies on topics including climate change and water resource management, the effect of various pricing strategies on water conservation, economics and water quality considerations around shale gas development, and measuring the economic value of improved water quality. Olmstead's dual appointment to the Brooks School and Atkinson Center is intended to accelerate collaboration in her area of focus.

“We are thrilled to welcome Sheila Olmstead to the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy faculty,” said Colleen Barry, Brooks School dean. “Sheila brings extensive expertise in environmental policy research, teaching and public engagement to the Cornell community, and I know she will contribute greatly to strengthen our school’s ties with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability as a Cornell Atkinson Scholar.” 

Olmstead served on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2016-17, and on the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2021 to present.

“I really fell in love with economics as a lens for analyzing environmental problems, because the problems are so complex, the stakes are so high and the human cost is so large,” Olmstead said.

When developing environmental regulations, agencies such as the EPA have to develop cost-benefit analyses to help legislators and regulators understand the impacts of proposed rules. By developing strategies to quantify the economic value of natural resources, Olmstead helps provide a more-informed discussion.

“When we’re talking about spending public dollars on conservation or environmental protection, firms are always going to come to the table talking about the cost to them of a certain regulation. The benefit side is the harder side,” Olmstead said. “Some people argue that the value of clean air or clean water is infinite, but the truth is, if you don’t provide a sound, economically rigorous benefit analysis, then firms will come to the table with cost estimates, and nobody comes to the table with benefit estimates. The risk is that these environmental values get heavily discounted in public discussion.”

For example, Olmstead cited research on public disclosure requirements by drinking water utilities. Since 1998, every utility and municipality that provides drinking water for at least 10,000 customers has been required to issue an annual public report stating whether they’ve met safety criteria for clean water, such as keeping bacteria at bay and minimizing harmful chemicals. Some industry groups have pushed back on the requirement because of its cost. Olmstead and her co-authors analyzed water quality violation data from 1990 to 2001 and found that disclosure requirements reduced safety violations by one-third.

“What we found is that just the process of disclosure has reduced drinking water violations quite substantially, especially with bacterial contamination,” she said.

David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell Atkinson, said Olmstead’s leadership and expertise will strengthen Cornell’s influence and capacity to build partnerships.

“To ensure that new federal investments have the desired impact – on topics ranging from ensuring clean water to accelerating the energy transition – new rigorous methods to measure public and private benefits are critical,” Lodge said. “As a Cornell Atkinson Scholar, Olmstead’s leadership and insights will connect Cornell researchers across the university and strengthen Cornell’s influence on environmental policy in growing partnership between the center and the Brooks School.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.

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