Impacts and Restoration
A key Commission recommendation was to dedicate 80 percent of all assessed Clean Water Act penalties to the long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. The Commission suggested that such a dedication could result either from Congressional action or a court settlement of claims against the responsible parties. BP has settled with private parties on their claims but, as we release our assessment, settlement negotiations with government are still unresolved.
Meanwhile, both the House and the Senate approved versions of a RESTORE Act as amendments to proposed Surface Transportation authorization bills. The Senate passed their bill but the House has not, prolonging the uncertainty over resources needed to address deteriorating conditions.
Consistent with the Commission recommendation, the RESTORE Act would place 80 percent of all administrative and civil penalties in a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund and establish a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. It would, however, allocate the majority of the funds by formula to the states and allow them to be used for workforce development, economic infrastructure and flood protection as well as ecosystem restoration. The Commission thought it appropriate that these funds should be dedicated to improving the region’s environmental health.
Another concern is that the science and technology program would be authorized by the RESTORE Act would not be as closely integrated with the comprehensive ecosystem restoration program as the Commission suggested. Nor does the bill include the recommended Citizens Advisory Council.
The Commission also recommended that organizational, financial, scientific, and public outreach capacities should be built in order to put the restoration effort on a strong footing. Toward that end, a federal-state task force established by the President prepared a Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy defining a framework to guide the effort.
Another ongoing response to the Deepwater Horizon spill is the assessment of natural resources damages caused by the spill. The Commission recommended that this process be transparent. NOAA has addressed this recommendation by making all the raw data collected to support this assessment public as soon as they have undergone quality assurance review. The process of actually evaluating the cost of the damages, however, is not public because it is part of the ongoing litigation. We believe, however, that these analyses should be made public after the litigation is over.
With regard to the need for better tools to balance the myriad economic and environmental interests—including offshore oil and gas development—on the nation’s continental shelves, the Commission recommended improved monitoring and increased use of comprehensive planning techniques (called coastal and marine spatial planning) in offshore areas. The National Ocean Policy Draft Implementation Plan released by the White House’s National Ocean Council for public comment this January lays out strategies in both areas.
The Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic are two of the nine regions where this coastal and marine spatial planning might be piloted, but this approach has generated controversy in both regions. The State of Alaska, for example, pulled out of the Coastal Zone Management Program and expressed opposition to marine spatial planning. Elsewhere it is feared that such planning could ultimately restrict certain kinds of activities in order to avoid conflicts with other activities or to protect particularly sensitive areas, even as it identifies places where resource exploration and development might responsibly occur.
Finally, the Commission suggested modifications to the government’s oil spill response plans. One recommendation was that EPA adopt procedures in the National Contingency Plan to ensure that potential adverse human health effects are adequately addressed and monitored during spills of national significance. The agency has not yet proposed any modifications to the Contingency Plan to accomplish this.
The Commission was also concerned about the confusion that seemed to exist about who was responsible for what in cases of spills of national significance. It appears as if this issue has yet to be resolved.
The most important actions over the next year are:
- Congress enacting legislation dedicating Clean Water Act penalties for long restoration of Gulf ecosystems;
- EPA and the Coast Guard modifying the oil spill response system to take account of the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon spill; and,
- NOAA working with other agencies, industry, stakeholders and the public to build support for Marine Spatial Planning.