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Conservation

Restoring the Gulf

2013-03-01, Department, by Maureen Hannan

On April 20, 2010, BP well site leaders instructed the crew of the leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig to ignore warning signs that the Macondo oil well was not secure. The resulting uncontrolled blowout, explosions, and fire led to the deaths of 11 crew members and the largest oil spill in U.S. history. On January 3, 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a settlement with Transocean Deepwater Inc., the owner of the rig. Transocean, under the terms of its guilty plea agreement, will pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal penalties. That sum includes a record $1 billion in civil penalties that will go directly into a fund to be used for Gulf Coast restoration and recovery.

Because of recent federal legislation establishing a special distribution process under the Clean Water Act, the five Gulf states impacted by the 2010 disaster, as well as individual affected counties in those states, will have unprecedented influence over how their portions of the billion-dollar penalty will be spent. The legislation, known as the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf States Act of 2012), created a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund (RTF) under the guardianship of the Treasury Secretary.

“This is a first-ever occurrence,” Jordan Diamond, deputy director of ocean programs with the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) nonprofit research and education center, explains. “In the past, Clean Water Act penalties were not used for restoration. They were limited to [remediating] damages by the spill. The RESTORE Act represents a new effort. These funds can be used very broadly for recovery and restoration.”

Karen Gautreaux, Louisiana field office director for The Nature Conservancy, describes the RTF allocation formula as a complex one that divides the money into numerous different “pots.” Furthermore, the state-by-state participation processes, subject to the approval of state and federal trustees, are all currently at different stages.

The biggest chunk of the RTF (35 percent) will go directly to the five Gulf Coast states—Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama—in equal shares for environmental and economic restoration projects. Most of the remaining funds will be divided between an Interstate Restoration Council (30 percent) and the Gulf states, based on oil spill impacts (30 percent).

“For parks that want to call attention to their need for restoration funds, the best thing will be to talk with local and state [RESTORE Act] partners,” Gautreaux advises. She also points out that the 30 percent of funds going to the Interstate Restoration Council may make funding available for local or state park initiatives that fit within regional ecological restoration priorities. (To find information on partners and council members at state and regional levels, visit www.restorethegulf.gov.)

Participation processes will also vary according to the different funding guidelines established for each state. For example, the majority (70 percent) of Louisiana funds will go directly to the state; whereas in Florida, disproportionately affected counties will get 75 percent of their state’s share. As a result, Florida counties along the Gulf Coast will have a much greater say in restoration projects than affected Louisiana parishes.

To help interpret funding complexities and aid in Gulf restoration, ELI has dedicated a section of its website (www.eli-ocean.org/gulf) to news and analysis relating to the RESTORE Act and other aspects of the funding and recovery process.

“The best chance of having an influence,” Diamond reminds Gulf Coast park leaders, “is to seek out participation opportunities—and speak up early and often.


Maureen Hannanis a Virginia-based writer and former senior editor of Parks & Recreation (BellflowerMedia@gmail.com).

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