Gulf Coast restoration delayed is justice denied

Federal policy long ago spurred the development of a vast industrial infrastructure in the Gulf. From the Mississippi River engineering that allows oceangoing ships to bring the nation’s produce to the world, to the tens of thousands of miles of pipeline canals serving thousands of offshore well sites, this infrastructure created massive national wealth, but it has destroyed more than a million acres of coastal wetlands and barrier islands that once served as a protective barrier against both man-made and natural disasters, including the BP catastrophe and hurricanes.

This industrial development has generated massive revenues to fuel the national economy. The economic growth created by the Gulf’s energy production and oceangoing transportation infrastructure is incalculable, but the direct deposits into the federal treasury are huge. Between Fiscal Year 2001 and 2009, federal offshore royalty revenues from the Gulf Outer Continental Shelf totaled nearly $60 billion.

Unbelievably, there is no commitment to reinvesting any of these receipts to restore the Gulf Coast environment. Nor does the federal government direct any of the taxes paid by shippers into environmental restoration. The nation gets rich, while the Gulf declines.

The BP catastrophe was another blow to this already-weakened environmental treasure. Federal law requires BP to pay for making people economically whole and to return the Gulf to a level of health equal to where it was the day before the explosion. However, the wetlands, barrier islands, and waters already were sick before the BP blowout, making them even more vulnerable to environmental damage.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration urged Congress to adopt the recommendations for long-term Gulf restoration contained in a report delivered by Navy Secretary and former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus. The recommendations included creating a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund, funded with a "significant amount" of BP fine money. Under the Clean Water Act, BP will pay a per-barrel penalty for oil it spilled into the Gulf’s blue waters, onto the wetlands and barrier islands.

As the law is now written, a portion of that will be put aside in case the federal government has to clean up future spills in which the responsible party is unwilling or unable to pay the cost, unlike BP. Unfortunately, most of the money simply will be funneled into the federal treasury. The administration rightfully has demanded that Congress prevent this unjust windfall and instead dedicate the penalties to making the Gulf even healthier than it was before the BP blowout.

A recent poll of Gulf region voters in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas showed that majorities of Independents (67 percent), Democrats (82 percent) and Republicans (67 percent) said they are more likely to support federal legislators who will make new investments in restoration.

Six months after the BP blowout killed 11 men, eventually spewing almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf, and disrupting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, there’s no reason to delay. Both the Senate and House must act on the President’s request immediately after the election during the upcoming lame duck session of Congress.

If Congress can make this happen, we’ll begin to see a wondrous thing: the nation coming together to give back to the Gulf its natural ability to regenerate and heal. It would be a true investment in a system that has given us so much: beauty, life, sustenance, energy, and culture. It’s an opportunity we must not lose. To paraphrase an old expression: Gulf Coast restoration delayed is justice denied.

Paul Harrison is senior director of the Mississippi River project at Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked on coastal Louisiana restoration for more than 35 years.