Paying to fix Louisiana’s coast


A new report on the long-term recovery of the Gulf Coast offers strong support for using BP’s fines to restore the coastal ecosystem, which is particularly important for Louisiana.

The authors of “Beyond Recovery: Moving the Gulf Coast Toward a Sustainable Future” – which was done by Oxfam and the Center for American Progress – urge Congress to direct 80 percent of fines under the Clean Water Act to coastal recovery. That tracks legislation introduced by Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

White House officials who attended the release of the report last week were supportive as well. “It is important for Congress to direct the Clean Water Act penalties to support restoration and recovery in the Gulf,” said Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is, and the administration needs to put its full effort behind the legislation.

The new report describes in vivid terms what is at stake. It notes the rapid and ongoing loss of Louisiana’s wetlands. “The state is unique in that it holds 40 percent of the wetlands in the continental United States but experiences about 80 percent of all wetland losses. Without a proactive plan to save and restore these wetlands, by 2050 one-third of coastal Louisiana will have vanished into the Gulf of Mexico,” the report says.

Louisiana has done a great deal of planning and has launched restoration projects. But a major infusion of money is needed to really gain ground.

BP and others responsible for the spill face between $5 billion and $19 billion in civil penalties. Dedicating most of that money to our region could help reverse decades of coastal erosion in Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier islands and provide an economic boost. The report estimates that pumping the fines back into the Gulf Coast could create thousands of jobs in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where barrier islands, bays, rivers and estuaries are threatened.

It is important for Congress and the administration to remember that Louisiana bore the brunt of the spill’s damage and faces the greatest needs to restore its coast. Louisiana’s recovery from the 2005 hurricanes and levee breaches was hampered because billions in federal aid were distributed based on political clout rather than on where the damage occurred. That shouldn’t happen with the BP fines.

Federal officials also should continue to resist BP’s efforts to downplay the size of the spill. The government has estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, but the company is claiming that the amount may be only half that. It is obvious why BP is pushing a smaller number – government fines are directly related to the amount of oil that was spilled.

The government is suing BP and its contractors under the Clean Water Act, which allows for civil fines of up to $1,000 per barrel of oil spilled or $4,300 per barrel if the companies are found guilty of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.” That would mean between $5 billion and $21 billion in potential civil penalties are at play in the litigation based on the government’s spill estimate.

If BP’s estimate were used, the fines would be slashed to between $2.5 billion and $11 billion.

It is notable that BP claimed early on that there was only a small amount of oil leaking into the Gulf. After U.S. Rep. Edward Markey pressured the company to provide live video feeds from the Gulf bottom, scientists found that the flow was far beyond what BP had said.

How this issue is settled will be crucial for our region and the recovery of Louisiana’s coast.

The state’s wetlands produce a third of the nation’s seafood. Our coast also supplies much of the nation’s domestic energy and is home to the country’s largest port system. Wetlands are crucial for reducing storm surge and are metro New Orleans’ first line of defense against hurricanes.

During the BP spill, President Obama promised that the federal government would “do whatever it takes for as long as it takes” to address the crisis and help restore the Gulf’s environment and economy. That must include saving Louisiana’s coast, which will be a massive and expensive task. The federal government is finally going to give Louisiana a significant share of the oil and gas revenues produced here, but not until 2017.

That isn’t soon enough. Estimates are that the state has less than a decade to reverse coastal loss before it’s too late.

Using BP’s fines to kickstart that process could make a huge difference to the long-term health of Louisiana’s coast. And it is only fair, considering that the spill left some marshes coated in oil.

A state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries-led tour in January drew attention to coastal areas that are still fouled by BP’s oil. Robert Barham, the department’s secretary, said heavy oil remains in Red Fish Bay and Pass a Loutre, one of the first spots where oil came ashore after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers.

Mr. Barham’s immediate concern is cleanup. “We just want BP to do what they have said they were going to do in their commercials: Make it right,” he said.

Cleanup is one part of making it right. Replenishing coastal marshes, which are vital to our well being, is another.

That’s why it is so important that the fines from BP and its partners in the failed well be used for restoring the coast.

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

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