Environmental groups propose framework for merging oil spill response, coastal restoration


Three of the nation’s most influential environmental groups on Wednesday called for the Obama administration and Congress to speed up funding to begin construction on long-awaited coastal restoration projects in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including the creation of a $5 billion BP escrow account to jump-start the process.

The Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation proposed a plan aimed at merging the long-term oil spill restoration process with already-existing, yet unfunded, plans to rebuild Louisiana’s tattered coastal wetlands – and doing it quickly.

In addition to the $5 billion escrow account, the groups are asking Congress to direct the proceeds from BP’s Clean Water Act violations – potentially up to $4,300 per barrel spilled – toward funding restoration in Louisiana and along the Gulf coast. And they are asking Congress to appropriate an additional $500 million from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to begin funding a suite of coastal restoration projects that were authorized in 2007, but have barely gotten off the ground.

The goal is to have funds available immediately, so that restoration work can begin as the federal government embarks on what will likely be a lengthy, years-long assessment of damages to the Gulf Coast’s natural resources.

“We cannot wait for five, 10 or 15 years as the system continues to decline,” said Karla Raettig, the national campaign director for coastal Louisiana restoration with the National Wildlife Federation. “We need the administration to secure that money from BP today. Our scientists are telling us we don’t have the time to wait.”

Initially, the three groups are asking for funding to go toward funding a series of restoration projects already authorized by Congress in 2007, as part of the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan. The plans include restoration of wetlands destroyed by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet over the past few decades, a series of Mississippi River diversions on the east and west banks and barrier island and shoreline restoration projects along Barataria Bay and in the Terrebonne Basin.

The group is also asking for President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that would better integrate how federal resource agencies work with the state of Louisiana to develop more long-term plans and additional restoration projects beyond the work that has already been authorized.

Navy Capt. Beci Brenton, a spokeswoman for Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who is leading the Obama administration’s Gulf Coast oil spill recovery, said in an e-mail message that the government is happy to hear ideas from everyone but that it is too early to discuss specific funding sources or proposals.

Under the federal government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, agencies will work with the states to tally the damages caused by the oil spill, collect damage money from the responsible parties and come up with restoration projects to offset the impacts of the spill. Although Louisiana’s coast was degrading long before the Deepwater Horizon spill, the groups argue that Louisiana has already laid the groundwork for comprehensive restoration through years of studies and projects that have already been authorized.

“We want to make sure some of that funding is channeled toward making the coast more resistant in the future, instead of strictly trying to repair the damage of the past,” said Paul Kemp, Vice President of the National Audubon Society who oversees the group’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative.

While the groups’ report points out the federal government’s inaction in the past in addressing coastal issues, they say the oil spill has turned the spotlight on an issue that has eluded influential policymakers for years.

“I feel like at your average cocktail party, people now understand the things that we were working just get a baseline understanding up around the country two years ago, and so the dialogue has gotten so much more sophisticated,” said Courtney Taylor, a federal policy analyst for Environmental Defense Fund’s coastal Louisiana project. “I think there’s an understanding in Washington that a system is in collapse, and that in order to restore even those wetlands over here or those wetlands over there you need to restore the system.”

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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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