Restoring the Gulf Coast

Photography by Michel Varisco

Restoring the Gulf Coast

In a strange twist of fate, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history may end up saving the South's wetlands and coastlines--if we make the right choices.

By Scott Weidensaul
Published: November-December 2013

For more than 15 years I've gone to the Alabama coast every spring to study birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico on their hemispheric migrations. By day the beaches swarm with vacationers, while fishing boats ply the blue-green water beyond the surf line.

Near dusk you hear little more than the sound of waves and the rolling peeda-wheet-weedit, peeda-wheet-weedit cries of willets flashing by on black-and-white wings. Cadres of sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers, and Wilson's plovers scurry down the beach like the bow wave of a boat. Brown pelicans and least terns wheel in the ocean breeze, and flocks of teal fly in tight formation beyond the breakers. Farther offshore, the white lances of hunting gannets plunge, arrowlike, into the water for fish. Then, as darkness settles over the coast, dozens of oil-and gas-drilling rigs illuminate the horizon like waterborne cities.

In 2010 I had scarcely returned home from our field season on the Gulf when the horrific news broke: an explosion on a huge oil rig named the Deepwater Horizon, 11 workers dead, and, it soon became clear, the worst ocean oil spill in the nation's history. More than 205 million gallons would spew into the Gulf from a seemingly unstoppable gusher a mile below the surface (along with, largely unseen, 2 million gallons of potentially toxic chemical dispersant used to control the oil).

Responders tallied more than 8,000 birds and 1,100 sea turtles, along with more than 100 marine mammals, that were devastated by the oil--a small fraction, experts believe, of the disaster's true toll. "This story has a long way to go," said Christopher F. D'Elia, dean of Louisiana State University's School of the Coast and Environment. "Sometimes the effects of a major spill are somewhat subtle, but over the years they can be larger than the immediate effects."

The Deepwater Horizon spill was just the latest and most blatant assault on this region, which for decades has been beset by wetlands loss, overfishing, barrier island erosion, and hypoxic "dead zones" created by agricultural runoff. Yet the spill could--paradoxically--mark a turning point. In 2012 legislation known as the RESTORE Act was signed into law, creating a federal-state oversight council and mandating that the billions of dollars from penalties levied against BP and its contractors under the Clean Water Act be spent on environmental and economic restoration in the five Gulf states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Roughly $2.5 billion stemming from a separate plea agreement will flow to fish and wildlife conservation in the region, while billions more in fines under the federal Oil Pollution Act will be available to address damage from the spill to natural resources.

"This is our one chance to give the Gulf something it's never had--a focused ecosystem restoration plan, with billions of dollars to make it work," said Chris Canfield, who oversees Audubon's operations on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Flyway. "And when you restore the environment along the coast of the Gulf, you also are restoring huge parts of the economy," he explains--because more than almost anywhere else in the country, the Gulf 's economic vitality is inextricably tied to its coastal ecology.

The Gulf is the engine of the region's economy, and the environment lies at its core. Tourism--dependent on clean beaches, healthy oceans, and lots of wildlife--produces five times the number of jobs as the oil and gas, commercial fishing, and shipping industries combined, according to federal statistics. In the 53 counties and parishes that line the coast, tourism accounts for 25,000 businesses, half a million jobs, and up to a third of all private-sector employment, says a new report by Datu Research for the Environmental Defense Fund. Wildlife tourism alone accounts for some $19.4 billion a year spent by birders, kayakers, hunters, and anglers. Add to that the Gulf 's storied seafood industry, which had an annual economic value of $10.5 billion before the spill, and you get a sense of how central the environment is to the regional economy.

Everyone agrees that the BP spill settlements represent the best--and possibly last--opportunity to reverse a decades-long decline in one of the richest marine environments in the world. But exactly how to realize that goal--how best to allocate the funds, which of the boatload of potential projects to fund, how to balance environmental and economic priorities--is the tricky part.

The signals so far have been mixed. Conservationists were both surprised and relieved in November 2012 when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the criminal penalties from BP, along with civil settlements from one contractor, Transocean, totaling almost $2.45 billion would be directed to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), a government-chartered nonprofit with a long history of funding solid, science-driven management and research. No one expected that such an extraordinary sum--more than the foundation had disseminated in its entire 28-year history--would go to a single entity, much less one with such a strong, purely environmental track record. In July another contractor, Halliburton, made a $55 million contribution to the NFWF after admitting it had destroyed evidence related to the spill.

The foundation will dole out the money over the next five years. "Those funds are pretty much guaranteed to go to wildlife, habitat, water-quality work, and not to purely economic or economically motivated projects," Canfield said. "This was exciting news given the competition that we know there will be for the other funds potentially coming to the Gulf."


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