BP oil spill disaster could end up working in favor of coastal restoration


The Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped about 210 million gallons of poisonous crude oil just off the Louisiana coast, unleashed economic and social chaos across the region, and leaves a shadow of doubt over the future of fish, wildlife and humans that will linger for decades.

But here’s a surprise: A coalition of national environmental groups working since 2007 on the effort to restore Louisiana’s crumbling coast believes BP’s bad behavior may end up saving more of those wetlands than it ever destroyed.

They say three months of daily newscasts have dramatically increased national awareness of the state’s real coastal disaster, and the billions in fines BP is expected to pay could bankroll critical projects Congress had refused to fund.

The only road block to a happy ending is a political atmosphere in Washington they describe as more toxic than chemical dispersants.

“There’s been a real increase in D.C. in awareness of the urgency of the problem,” said Karla Raettig, the National Wildlife Federation’s manager for the collaborative effort with the National Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund.

“And we’ve seen the same response nationally from members and volunteers,” she said. “It’s definitely helped.”

The help is sorely needed, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

Losing 25 square miles each year

Louisiana’s coastal wetlands continue to turn into open water at the rate of 25 square miles per year, the result of levees built for navigation and flood protection, and tens of thousands of miles of canals dredged for the oil and gas industries.

If the problem is left unaddressed, scientists said, most of southeastern Louisiana outside hurricane protection levees will be under water by 2050. That would virtually erase the most productive fisheries in the lower 48 states and place more than $100 billion in economic infrastructure at risk, including the nation’s busiest port and a network of pipelines that delivers nearly a third percent of the nation’s energy supply.

The drive to restore the coast, which had been drifting for decades, gained steam after Hurricane Katrina. The state and the Army Corps of Engineers came up with detailed plans, and national green groups began lobbying Congress and the nation to support projects that could ultimately top $100 billion.

But the momentum began to sag in the economic and political eruptions of the past two years. Not only is money tight as the country struggles to recover from the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, but a Congress already bitterly divided along partisan lines is approaching mid-term elections.

With every vote for spending now a political football, finding consensus has became increasingly difficult.

“The atmosphere in Congress is toxic, like the Gulf,” Raettig said. “Maybe actually worse at times.”

BP expected to pay fines in the billions

But those green groups now readily admit renewed hope has come from the most unlikely of sources: BP’s record environmental insult.

A financial lift could come from fines BP is expected to be assessed for violations of the Clean Water Act. The company faces a base penalty of $1,300 for each of the 4.9 million barrels of oil the federal government estimates its blown rig poured into the Gulf. And if the accident is determined to be the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct, the fine can move to $4,100 per barrel, which could result in a $21 billion bill.

Federal rules call for such fines to go into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is used to clean up spills when the responsible party can’t. But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has mounted a drive to dedicate 80 percent of BP fines to Gulf Coast states for restoring the coastal environment, a move that has drawn support from the Obama administration.

These payments would be in addition to any income from the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which requires direct payment by BP for measured impacts on the environment. That process could take years, but the environmental coalition is excited about the Clean Water Act fines because they could be paid within a year or two.

However, any potential windfall must still negotiate the minefield of Congressional rules and politics.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has ruled that any fines assessed BP will be counted as projected income for the general budget, even thought it is was not expected when the budget was written. That means any special appropriations for coastal restoration must be offset by a different income source.

“It makes no sense to any of us, but the CBO makes the rules,” said Paul Harrison, the Environmental Defense Fund’s representative to the Louisiana coastal effort. “We’ve seen the congressional leadership work around problems like this in creative ways, so we know it can be done.”

Politics of recovery are tricky

The group is optimistic it has support. Harrison said the months-long BP disaster drama has “unambiguously” increased congressional awareness of the state’s long-term problem and its causes as well as support for the solutions.

But the politics remain tricky — even within the state’s own delegation.

The promise and problems were evident during the recent House debate on the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act. Universally hailed by environmental groups, the so-called CLEAR Act uses increased royalty payments on oil and gas production to fund Gulf Coast restoration and research programs as well as the long-neglected Land and Water Conservation Fund, closes a loophole that exempts oil and gas projects from the certain Clean Water Act regulations, and removes “categorical exclusions” used to exempt some on-shore drilling applications from environmental review.

It was strenuously opposed by the energy industry and the Republican leadership as unnecessary and burdensome. But when Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, offered an amendment to dedicate money from oil spill fines to Louisiana’s coastal projects, he received lots of support from the GOP.

“In the middle of this very contentious debate in the House over the CLEAR Act, you had a break for a complete moment of bipartisanship,” Harrison said. “Here you had (Rep. Steve) Scalise, R-Jefferson, standing up and encouraging everyone to vote yes. And everyone did.”

Then every Republican, including Scalise, Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of New Orleans and the four other Louisiana House members, voted against the entire bill, which still passed 209-193. The Louisiana Republicans said they opposed the bill for other reasons, including how quickly the money would be made available for coastal restoration and whether some of the proposed regulations would force smaller drilling companies out of business.

The Obama administration’s support for directing a portion of the BP fines to coastal restoration — it has not signed on to Landrieu’s proposal for 80 percent — could provide some momentum for the cause when the Senate takes up its version of the bill in September. A final deal is likely to be worked out in a compromise committee.

Supporters remain wary, noting that seemingly broad support for an issue doesn’t always translate to victory.

“That’s kind of a capsule of where we are,” Harrison said. “The vote on (Melancon’s) amendment showed recognition of Louisiana’s long-term problem, and support for funding the solutions.

“But there’s just this almost total unwillingness to make this a top priority when it comes up against other issues.”

Members of the coalition worry that the heightened political friction of mid-term Congressional elections could ruin the potential for harvesting some good from the BP disaster by stalling the effort.

“The nation’s attention will shift, it always does,” Harrison said. “Right now, thanks to BP, we have the opportunity. But you have to act on it up here quickly, or you lose it.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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