The goal of restoring the Gulf of Mexico has been lost amid bureaucratic squabbling over BP spill fines
By Bob Graham and William K. Reilly,
Published: May 31
Bob Graham is a former governor and U.S. senator from Florida. William K. Reilly was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the George H.W. Bush administration and is a past president of the World Wildlife Fund. They co-chaired the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
Almost daily, some mention is made of the billions of dollars in fines and penalties that might come from BP and its contractors in resolving the litigation that resulted from the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
What the American people don’t hear about is the unacceptably slow progress in repairing the damage to one of the world’s most productive natural resources. Although oil and gas production is important, the United States also depends on the gulf for much of its seafood (half the production in the lower 48 states), and many residents along the coast depend on a healthy gulf for their livelihoods in fishing, recreational industries and tourism.
The National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which we co-chaired, recommended that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties resulting from the spill be earmarked for restoring the gulf’s ecosystems. Last year, with bipartisan support, Congress passed the Restore Act adopting this recommendation. The revenue from the spill penalties offers an opportunity to reverse decades of destruction.
The country needs to get started and needs to do it right. So far, though, we are not encouraged about either prospect.
Progress has been slow. Almost two years ago, BP agreed to provide $1 billion for early restoration of damaged natural resources — projects to be started before final settlement was reached regarding damages. At the end of April, only 7 percent of the available funds had been committed. A couple of dozen projects have recently been announced for consideration, but half of those are focused on recreation rather than restoring damaged resources and ecosystems.
The goal of restoring the gulf’s environment has become lost amid bureaucratic squabbling. A recent report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general indicates that federal agencies can’t agree on how the Restore Act money will be managed. The states are arguing not only about how much money each will get but also about how it will be spent. Some state and local officials want to use Restore Act funds for things unrelated to ecosystem restoration — such as building resorts, balancing budgets or replacing revenue sources for ongoing expenditures.
Last month, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council established by the Restore Act produced a “Draft Initial Comprehensive Plan” describing the council’s goals and the processes it intends to follow. This is encouraging, but the report lacks the spending allocation plan and the priority list of specific projects that the Restore Act requires. One thing impeding headway is the fact that, of the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, only Louisiana and Florida have specific proposals for restoration projects.
To the commission, the compelling rationale for allocating revenue from Clean Water Act fines to restoration of the gulf coast was the need to reverse the long-term degradation of the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems. Well before the BP spill, the federal government was an active partner in depletion of this productive resource, helping in the destruction of coastal wetlands to promote shipping, oil and gas development, and other economic activities.
Now the restoration initiative is at risk of falling victim to the same absence of thoughtful, coherent planning that allowed the degradation of the ecosystems. No clear goals are evident on what the restoration efforts should be trying to achieve. There is no process for assessing improvements in the health of the gulf, no means for ensuring that the projects undertaken are scientifically and technically sound, no mechanism for coordinating the many players and the several buckets of funding. These are essential elements before billions of dollars are expended.
The Gulf of Mexico has suffered long enough. The revenue from the spill penalties offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to begin reversing decades’ worth of destruction. The country cannot allow this opportunity to be wasted by inadequate planning, bureaucratic infighting or shortsighted handouts to special interests.
Stakeholders also need to look at creative approaches, such as those offered by some in the private sector who are willing to invest their own money to help speed restoration. One investment partnership experienced in wetlands mitigation, for example, has raised funds to restore wetlands protecting New Orleans and says it can do this faster and at lower cost than government can. It is also willing to accept payback after the restored wetlands demonstrate their viability. This type of private initiative should be encouraged.
Every dollar spent conserving habitat, restoring water quality, protecting coastal and marine resources, and strengthening community resilience will create jobs and return the investment many times over for generations to come. Let’s put gulf restoration on a solid foundation — now.