Legacy Of The Gulf Oil Spill

By David J.White

It is said that behind every crisis is an opportunity.The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a tragedy that took the lives of eleven men, significantly disrupted the economy of the Gulf States, and enormously damaged fish, wildlife, and natural ecosystems of the Gulf Coast.

Various legal processes are underway to hold BP responsible for the economic and ecological damages it caused.  The Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is currently evaluating ecological impacts from the spill, and will require the company to pay full restitution for all environmental damages. This is just the cost of business for these multinational energy corporations who reap huge profits from drilling in ever-deeper and more dangerous waters.

The RESTORE Act, passed by Congress and signed into law with the help of sportsmen, anglers and conservationists around the country, sends 80% of all civil fines for illegal discharge of oil under the Clean Water Act back to the Gulf Coast region for ecological and economic restoration.  Without the RESTORE Act, these funds – which could be as much as $17 billion – would otherwise go into the US Treasury.   Consequently, RESTORE Act funds constitute somewhat of a windfall to the Gulf States, since they are not necessarily intended to compensate for damages caused by the oil disaster.

It is now time for Florida’s anglers, sportsmen and conservationists to rally and engage in the various processes going on in Gulf Coastal Counties to determine how the RESTORE funds will be spent. We believe it is fitting, fair and just to use the majority of BP’s civil fines and penalties to fund ecosystem-scale solutions necessary to address ecological damage to the Gulf Coast caused by decades of degradation, neglect, and abuse.  As you might imagine, however, there is tremendous pressure at the state and local level to divert those funds away from ecological restoration projects into primarily economic development activities. It will take a concerted effort from all of us that care about healthy fish and wildlife populations to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between ecosystem restoration and economic development, and to advocate for restoration projects that will benefit the ecology and resiliency of coastal communities while also creating jobs and stimulating the regional economy.

The RESTORE Act passed with strong bipartisan support because Congress recognized the Gulf of Mexico is an American treasure worth saving. The crisis that was the oil spill became an opportunity to address a half-century’s worth of ecological degradation. Our coastal ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate, many of our fisheries are reduced to a mere vestige of what they once were, and our coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding from more frequent and powerful storms.

The RESTORE Act is an historic opportunity to address, in a truly meaningful way, the long-term degradation of the Gulf by rebuilding marshes, restoring water quality and the ecological integrity of our estuaries, reversing erosion of barrier islands and coastal habitats, and protecting our investments in our coastal way of life.  It’s also our best chance to restore our fishing and seafood tradition by protecting and improving essential fish habitats to produce more fish for the future. Our challenge now is to find the most effective way to direct funds to correct major environmental problems in the Gulf, in a way that promotes economic and environmental resiliency for coastal communities.

Tourism plays a vital role in our state, and Florida’s 23 Gulf coastal counties support more than 16,000 tourism businesses, providing more than 281,000 jobs.  Florida’s tourism industry is largely driven by clean waters and beautiful beaches, making productive coastal ecosystems and habitats economic engines that help drive our economy.  Fishing, hunting and wildlife watching are important economic drivers in Florida, drawing over 7 million participants annually, and generating over $8 billion in revenue. This industry consists not only of guides that directly serve visitors, but also lodging and dining establishments where visitors eat and sleep.  Wildlife tourism depends on healthy ecosystems, Florida’s “natural capital.”

We should insist that our government leaders implement a robust, transparent and broad-based public participation process where projects and activities that will both stimulate the coastal economy and contribute to the recovery and restoration of coastal resources can be fully and fairly understood, discussed, and compared.  Ultimately, projects that have the greatest long-term benefits for coastal communities can then be widely supported by the public and implemented as quickly as possible.

If we use this money to restore coastal habitats, improve water quality, and increase coastal resiliency we will create new jobs and reduce flood risks, improve tourism opportunities, and help achieve economic and ecological stability over the long term.

In short, we can either make sound investments that will make a lasting difference to our future prosperity, or we can squander this opportunity. Despite its title and fairly explicit intention, the RESTORE Act leaves plenty of wiggle room for non-restoration expenditures. Florida’s leaders could easily spend these funds on the very kinds of infrastructure and development that have left the coast in its current degraded state.  We the People must let our elected officials know we want the legacy of this tragic event to be a healthy, resilient Florida Gulf Coast that will support our communities and our economy for generations to come.

David J. White
Director, Gulf of Mexico Restoration Campaign
National Wildlife Federation
Saint Petersburg, FL

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