Good News for the Gulf: Why the Largest Environmental Settlement in U.S. History Won’t Get Wasted

Six years after the BP oil spill, a new plan outlines how billions of dollars dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration will go where it’s needed most.

Last week, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, the body charged with overseeing the expenditure of some $3 billion in civil penalties resulting from the 2010 BP oil spill, released its Comprehensive Plan laying out how that money will be put to use for ecological restoration efforts in the Gulf. The plan is, on its face, not an exciting document: Running roughly 30 pages, it doesn’t describe any actual restoration projects to be undertaken. Instead, it painstakingly describes the process and criteria that will guide the selection of such projects, including lengthy definitions for words like “program” (“a suite of intrinsically-linked restoration and/or conservation activities that must be implemented together in order to achieve the desired outcome”).

But for conservationists, the new plan from the so-called RESTORE Council represents an exhilarating step forward, the culmination of a years-long effort to ensure that the funds from the biggest U.S. environmental settlement in history (in total, BP will pay the federal and Gulf state governments more than $20 billion, much of which is designated for ecosystem restoration) go where they’re most needed. “We see this as the blueprint for what is going to be the most fully funded restoration program in United States history,” says David Muth, the director of the Gulf Restoration Program of the National Wildlife Federation, which is part of a coalition of environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society and Environmental Defense Fund, that helped guide the council as it hammered out the plan 

In fact, it’s the very language that makes the new Comprehensive Plan so boring to the average reader that also makes the plan a success: It spells out in explicit terms how the council, which is composed of members from the five Gulf states and six federal agencies, will seek to develop the kind of ambitious, coordinated, long-term ecosystem restoration projects that are desperately needed in the Gulf region.

Putting funding toward its best use might sound like a given, but nothing is easy when it comes governmental spending, much less when there’s an unprecedented sum of money up for grabs. “When you’re dealing with a bureaucratic maze as complicated as federal funding going to five separate states, with all the different stakeholders involved, that’s a recipe for a quagmire,” says David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. And for a while, some conservationists worried that a quagmire—and the loss of a historic opportunity for ecological recovery in the Gulf—was exactly what might happen. 

A Region in Peril  

When the Deepwater Horizon rig blew in April of 2010, it immediately plunged the Gulf into an environmental nightmare. Over the course of three months, 200 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, coating tens of thousands of miles of sea and shoreline and poisoning anything in its path. The devastation that followed the spill was almost unfathomable—listless, dying pelicans coated in crude, turtles washed up on beaches, decimated oyster beds.

But as catastrophic as the BP spill was (and continues to be), the Gulf’s problems didn’t begin there. Even before 2010, the natural ecological structure of the region had been fundamentally disrupted by a century of human development. In the Mississippi River Delta, for example, the construction of levees, shipping channels, and oil and gas infrastructure drastically altered the delta’s natural hydrology, leading to a dramatic loss of the wetlands that provide crucial habitat for hundreds of species of migratory birds. As sea levels continue to rise, further eroding the coastline’s protective barrier islands, even more habitat will be lost. 

All this has taken a heavy toll on Gulf ecosystems. “Even before the BP spill we were very much on the collapse of our fisheries,” says Doug Meffert, Audubon vice president for the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway. The fish and birds that depend on the region “were already at a tipping point in being able to deal with the pressures we’ve put on them.”

In Louisiana, the damage was so acute—more than 1,900 square miles of wetlands have disappeared over the past century—that in 2009, then-Senator Mary Landrieu convened a team of NGOs, scientists, and state and federal officials to come together for a series of workshops with the goal of developing federal legislation to advance coastal restoration. The group held its first daylong retreat in the fall of 2009. The Deepwater Horizon rig blew the following spring. 

Avoiding a Quagmire

After the BP spill occurred, conservationists wondered how it might possibly lead toward a path to recovery—not just from the effects of the spill, but from long-term ecological damage in the region, says Courtney Taylor, who at the time worked for EDF and has more recently served as an outside consultant to the environmental coalition. As Taylor puts it, “Where could you create a bigger, better, broader opportunity for the Gulf?”

One answer seemed to be the Clean Water Act; in December 2010, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against BP (and other companies implicated in the spill, such as Transocean) for violations of the act. And while it was unclear exactly how much money would result from the lawsuit, it was evident that the sum could be in the billions.

So during the year following the spill, Landrieu and other Gulf officials, with the input of conservation groups, began to formulate a legislative plan for how the anticipated penalties could be returned to the Gulf region. According to Taylor, the two big questions that kept cropping up during the haggling were: “Should all the money go back to the states for basically whatever they want in equal shares, or should it have some different structure where there’s still federal control and specified uses?” 

In the end, the bill that emerged, which secured 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties for restoration activities in the Gulf, was something of a compromise. It divided the settlement into three main pots: 35 percent of the funds would be split equally among the five Gulf states to use as they saw fit; 30 percent would be turned over to a newly established RESTORE Council to allocate for environmental restoration projects; and 30 percent would be divided unequally among the states to develop their own proposals, subject to the approval of the council. (The remaining 5 percent is reserved for various scientific research and monitoring programs.) When Landrieu introduced the bill in 2011, nearly every Gulf senator signed on as a co-sponsor, and in 2012 the RESTORE Act was signed into law.

At the time, there was still no telling how much the BP settlement would be under the Clean Water Act or even when a sum would be decided. With the clock ticking, the first step was to set up the RESTORE Council—itself a monumental undertaking, essentially creating a new federal agency—and develop an Initial Comprehensive Plan for spending the anticipated settlement money (the council intended to update the plan later). After that, there would be a vote on the primary list of projects to be funded. 

For conservationists, the priority was to ensure that the projects ultimately funded through the RESTORE Act were in the service of a broad vision of holistic restoration of the Gulf’s broken ecosystems—not piecemeal efforts that, while worthwhile, didn’t take the bigger ecological picture into account. “Large-scale ecosystem processes created these systems as we know them today,” Meffert says, “and restoring those large-scale processes is critical for the long-term sustainability of the Gulf.”

The projects would also need to be developed in close coordination with each other, with Gulf restoration projects from other funding streams (including other pots of money from the BP settlement), and with state and local restoration programs (such as Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan). The key, Taylor says, is using various funding sources so that they “add up to a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.”

When the council released its Initial Comprehensive Plan in 2013, some conservationists were underwhelmed. It was “too brief and too vague and didn’t have the specifics that we felt were necessary,” Muth says. That lack of direction could be seen in the project proposals the council received for its first round of funding, around $240 million that came from the Justice Department’s settlement with Transocean earlier that year.

“We saw projects proposed by individual states and federal agencies where there clearly had been no coordination, where there were overlapping geographies and goals,” Muth says. “And that’s just not acceptable. They don’t need to all go in there looking for their share of the pie.”

The Turning Point

Part of the challenge for the council was that it had drafted the initial plan while the lawsuit against BP was still being litigated. “For the first several years, we were operating without knowing how much money we were going to have and when we were going to have it,” says Justin Ehrenwerth, the council’s executive director. “In that first round we really wanted to pick foundational projects—projects that we could build upon as the dollars from BP became available.” 

Then in the summer of 2015, BP and the government reached a tentative settlement, and it finally became clear how much total money would be on the table. As work began on an updated Comprehensive Plan, the environmental coalition met with members of the council to push for the inclusion of firm guidelines to make sure future proposals would be explicitly guided by a long-term vision for restoration in the Gulf.

A turning point seemed to come earlier this year when Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, was brought on as the council chair, with Robert Bonnie, the USDA’s under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, serving as his designee. After Bonnie joined the council in March, the overhaul of the plan kicked off in earnest. 

“Bonnie brought a new energy to the whole process,” Taylor says. “He comes from an agency and a perspective of knowing how to work on the ground with states.”

This spring, as it began to draft its updated Comprehensive Plan, the council “did something that is not typically done by the federal government,” according to Ehrenwerth: It reached out to the public, to scientists, and to conservation groups for feedback on how it could improve the initial plan and project-selection process. “We had done good work in the first [funding round], and there were a number of good projects there,” Bonnie says. “But there were also a number of lessons to be learned.”

The updated Comprehensive Plan released last week, which will be open to public comment before being finalized, is a reflection of that feedback. It puts forth a clear path for moving forward, including meetings throughout 2017 between council members and stakeholders in other Gulf-restoration funding streams to look for ways to coordinate projects. The plan also elaborates how the council will improve on the review process for proposals so that the projects selected are grounded in the best possible science.

While far from a thrilling read, taken as a whole, the council's final plan inspires optimism: It signals a serious commitment to the kind of big-picture, long-term vision that the Gulf needs, taking on the nitty-gritty work of setting out rules that will help make that vision happen. In the end “they’ve committed to large-scale, to evaluating cumulative benefits of the entire program as they move forward,” Muth says. And in doing so, the council has ensured that the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has ever seen isn’t made worse by a failure to take advantage of the monumental conservation opportunity that arose from it—one that conservationists aren’t likely to see again.