Undergraduate Research

Samuel Topper ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Samuel Topper ’23

Samuel Topper
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Samuel Topper (he/him) is majoring in economics. He conducts research under the mentorship of Assistant Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Paul Brehm. His project is titled “The Unintended Consequences of Ohio’s Environmental Remediation Law of the Oil and Gas Industry.”

Please describe your project:

My project focuses on oil and gas legislation aimed at promoting the capping of idle and orphaned oil and gas wells in Ohio. In 2018, Ohio passed House Bill 225, which was intended to provide more funds to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to cap abandoned wells. Similar to many other states, Ohio has traditionally paid for environmental costs of oil and gas well drilling by requiring a severance tax (a state tax imposed on companies for the extraction of non-renewable natural resources that are intended for consumption in other states). By allocating a larger share of the funds from the severance tax, HB225 was designed to rapidly increase the number of wells being capped. However, I found that the bill has had mixed and inconclusive effects. The study highlights the failures of public policy to address rising environmental problems.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

Currently, there are millions of uncapped oil and gas wells across the United States that are leaking chemicals into groundwater, emitting methane, and degrading surrounding habitat. My work focuses on Ohio, where a recent house bill passed in 2018 reallocated oil and gas severance tax dollars towards plugging these wells. I show that the regulatory policy passed in Ohio did not lead to greater plugging of wells, and actually increased the number of well drilling permits issued following its passage.

Why is your research important?

States across the U.S. are increasingly burdened by rising costs for environmental cleanup. There are multiple ways that states attempt to raise revenue to address these costs, but there are also political costs associated with these choices. My research helps illuminate the frictions between economic policies and political mandates, and contributes to a growing literature on the failure of regulatory policy to provide meaningful effects on environmental outcomes. 

What does the process of doing your research look like? 

I had to spend a lot of time searching for reliable data from state databases and private sources. One of the problems with existing well-level data across the U.S. is that it is frustratingly incomplete. Much of the current literature on abandoned oil and gas wells focuses on this lack of documentation, which is unfortunately not just the case in Ohio, but across the U.S. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

My findings showed that the passage of HB225 did not lead to a discernible increase in the number of oil and gas wells plugged, but did lead to an increase in the number of new well drilling permits issued. While this study focuses on a political and environmental issue local to Ohio, the success or failure of Ohio’s solutions to well plugging has larger ramifications for understanding how other states have dealt with or will have to deal with similar issues. 

Samuel at a desk, focused on his laptopIn what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

The economics department has generously provided the opportunity for us honors students to present in front of the full faculty multiple times. I have also had the opportunity to present in front of my fellow honors students, who have taken the time to provide valuable feedback.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college? 

Knowing that my time at Oberlin would be coming to a close, I hoped to be able to pursue a research project under a faculty mentor before graduation. I spent the previous summer working as an intern at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in financial assurance. It was during the summer that I became aware of the problem of abandoned and orphan wells across the U.S. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process? 

While it proved to be extremely difficult at times, I thoroughly enjoyed learning how to do the regression analysis. Retroactively—given my lack of experience with STATA and causal inference techniques— it felt like I had won a grueling 3 set tennis match when I finally ran my first regression. 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

I was extremely fortunate to have Professor Brehm, Professor Duca, and Professor Peiris assist me and guide me towards the important questions that I needed to address. As mentors, they were all very inspiring and pushed me to continue pursuing angles of my project that I never would have thought of on my own.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

After pursuing honors and completing my project, I have been thinking about pursuing graduate school in environmental economics. 

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field? 

 I would suggest talking and putting yourself out there with the wonderful faculty members of the economics department. I think that a lot of students are really shy (at least this was certainly the case for me) and do not want to talk to their professors. But if I’ve learned anything during my time here at Oberlin, the faculty here are extremely accessible and supportive. They want you to succeed!