Milton Russell, a Resources for the Future senior fellow and research director from 1972 to 1983, died last month. His colleagues describe him as “a giant in our field and in RFF’s legacy,” and his insights continue to inform modern energy policy.
Milton Russell died on February 1 in Knoxville, Tennessee, at age 89. He was a senior fellow and a research division director at Resources for the Future (RFF) from 1972 to 1983.
Milton’s association with RFF began when he was teaching at Southern Illinois University, after prior stints at Iowa State University and Texas Christian University.
By 1972, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had begun to exercise its collective power, raising crude oil prices and reducing the longstanding dominance of large, multinational oil companies over decisions about oil production in OPEC countries. Excess capacity for oil production in the United States relative to domestic demand, which had existed for most of the twentieth century, was drying up. President Richard Nixon had instituted price controls throughout the US economy in 1971, leading to significant disruptions in the availability of gasoline and other petroleum products. In 1973, Nixon lifted tariffs on imported oil that the United States had maintained since 1933.
Amid these developments, RFF was looking for someone to write a book on the history of US policy on oil imports and lessons for US energy-security policy drawn from that history. Milton accepted the assignment; the result was the coauthored volume Limiting Oil Imports: An Economic History and Analysis, published by RFF in 1974. This book still is the definitive work on the topic. Among the book’s conclusions was that limiting oil imports raises US petroleum prices and takes away an important mechanism for buffering the effects of growing petroleum demand (or temporary interruptions in domestic supplies) on US petroleum prices. This observation is even more relevant today than it was 50 years ago.
After the publication of the book and a subsequent monograph-length primer on the topic, written at the request of the US House Committee on Financial Services, Milton took leave from RFF to serve as a senior staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers. He returned to RFF in 1978 to co-lead RFF’s Center for Energy Policy Research, overseeing a research agenda covering topics that spanned energy security, the role of energy in the economy, deregulation of natural gas supplies, improving estimates of energy supply and demand elasticities, and more. Milton also contributed to several influential RFF books about energy during that time.
In 1983, Milton accepted an invitation from US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus to become assistant administrator for policy, planning, and evaluation. Milton accomplished much during his four years in this position, and one accomplishment especially stands out: Milton organized a team (which included Richard Morgenstern, who was then in the policy office of the Environmental Protection Agency) to carry out a massive cost-benefit study of phasing out the lead in motor fuels. The study documented the huge benefits of reducing exposure to lead, especially for children, relative to the estimated cost of removing lead from motor fuels. The analysis incorporated the innovative idea of allowing that any lead reductions in excess of required amounts could be banked for subsequent use in the phaseout. The study provoked strong resistance from refiners and others who feared that the phaseout would raise costs and even drive them out of business. Apparently, Milton was sufficiently irked by efforts to sweep the study under the rug that he leaked its findings to the Washington Post. The rest, as they say, is history.
Milton was a giant in our field and in RFF’s legacy.RFF Senior Fellows Dallas Burtraw and Alan Krupnick
After leaving the Environmental Protection Agency, Milton joined the economics department at the University of Tennessee from 1987 to 1997. He also was the founding director of the Joint Institute for Energy and Environment, which connected the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Oak Ridge National Lab.
After retiring from the University of Tennessee, Milton remained active professionally. He served on an expert panel that dealt with sites that continued to be highly contaminated by legacy radioactive waste from the production of nuclear weapons. He also was invited to China several times to advise environmental policy leaders there, based on the strong connections he formed during his time at the Environmental Protection Agency.
In between professional experiences, Milton and his beloved wife, Pat, had numerous travel adventures, including trekking in Bhutan (a rare event in those days).
Throughout his life, Milton combined a genuinely folksy and unimposing temperament (reflecting his roots in rural Texas) with a razor-sharp analytical capacity with which he presented arguments in very intuitive and accessible ways. He was scrupulously honest, open-minded, and ready to offer encouragement. He also was kind and patient, even in the face of great adversity, including serious health problems and family tragedies. Milton believed that life was to be experienced, challenges were to be overcome, and all of life’s experiences were opportunities for learning. He became a cherished friend and professional inspiration to the many people who crossed his path.