By Whit Remer and Elizabeth Weiner, Environmental Defense Fund
Last week, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council released the “Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy” for implementing parts of the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act, which was enacted into law in 2012 in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council was created by the RESTORE Act and comprises officials from five Gulf Coast states and six federal agencies.
The RESTORE Act requires the Council to develop and maintain a comprehensive plan for restoring the Gulf Coast, and the release of the Initial Comprehensive Plan is a milestone in that process. Throughout the last year, the Council solicited input from the public on various components of the Initial Comprehensive Plan. The Plan ultimately included goals and objectives and reiterated the restoration priorities that were central in the RESTORE Act.
The Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign provided vital input to the Council, emphasizing adherence to statutory language, use of the best-available science and the central role that the delta plays in comprehensive, Gulf-wide restoration. While the Plan sketches a blueprint for Gulf Coast restoration, the next steps toward developing a project and program list are critical to the Plan’s success. Louisiana’s fragile wetlands continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Sediment diversions, marsh creation and barrier island restoration are all methods being proposed to stem the loss of land and provide storm protection and habitat along the coast. We will continue to encourage the Council to use the best-available science to develop a project and program list, including these methods, and put restoration dollars to work as soon as possible.
In the Initial Comprehensive Plan, the Council provided several reasons for not including a project and program list. The Department of Treasury is required by the RESTORE Act to issue regulations to guide disbursement of funding to states and allocation of funding by the Council. These regulations are currently held up for review at the Office of Management and Budget. Once the regulations are approved, the Council will have more direction on how to spend and allocate restoration dollars.
However, the Council will need more funding in the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Trust Fund to carry out its priority projects and programs list, once complete. Thirty percent of the total funding in this Trust Fund will be used for these priority projects and programs. Transocean, one of the responsible parties, has already settled their Clean Water Act fines totaling $1 billion, which will result in $800 million in the Trust Fund by January 3, 2015. The Trust Fund will receive additional funding from Clean Water Act fines assessed against BP and other responsible parties resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Fines against BP and other oil companies involved in spill have yet to be determined by a federal judge in New Orleans. The second phase of the trial to determine those fines is set for September 30, but the judgment could take months to issue, with the chance an appeal would follow.