By Geof Koss
For decades, the Gulf of Mexico has played a major role in the U.S. economy, producing most of the nation's offshore oil and gas supplies and nearly a third of its seafood. Many of the nation's busiest ports dot its coastline, which also draws millions of tourists to its white-sand beaches each year. As the region's lawmakers are fond of noting, if the five states that line the gulf's shores were a single country, it would rank seventh globally in gross domestic product.
But economic development comes at a cost, and the effects of human activities are evident throughout the region. Louisiana loses a football-field-sized parcel of wetlands to erosion every 40 minutes, the result of flood control efforts along the Mississippi River that deprive the coast of replenishing sediment. Agricultural runoff from the Midwest fuels the formation each summer of a "dead zone" at the mouth of the Mississippi River that starves plants and marine life of the oxygen needed to survive.
Compounding the region's woes was last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which spewed millions of barrels of oil into the gulf for months and ranks as the nation's worst environmental disaster.
Even though the environmental problems facing the gulf have been well understood for many years, funding to implement costly restoration plans has proved to be elusive.
"This area, in my view, has been underinvested in year after year, decade after decade," says Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who has crusaded for years to secure federal funds for gulf restoration. "Although we are America's energy coast, we just have not been able to get the federal government to really understand the importance of investing in coastal restoration and strengthening the infrastructure down there. This isn't just a Louisiana issue; this is a national issue."
The presidential commission that investigated the BP disaster reached a similar conclusion. "The spill itself is a regional issue, but the slow-motion decimation of the Gulf of Mexico's coastal and marine environment -- created by federal and state policies, and exacerbated by energy infrastructure and pollution -- is an unmet national challenge," the commission declared.
Ironically, the oil spill could turn out to be the salvation of the beleaguered gulf, by focusing national attention on the region's woes and, more importantly, by providing a dedicated funding source for addressing them if legislation written by Landrieu and other Gulf Coast lawmakers becomes law.
Dubbed the "Restore Act," the bill would direct 80 percent of any fines that the federal government collects from BP for the spill to restoration efforts in the gulf. The amounts at play are not insignificant. Under federal law, BP faces a $1,100 fine per barrel of oil spilled, and if the company is found to have acted with "gross negligence," the penalty increases to $4,300 per barrel. Based on the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that leaked, the total fine could be between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion -- money that otherwise would be deposited in the general treasury.
That would represent a hefty down payment on a comprehensive gulf restoration plan released earlier this month by a state-federal task force that President Obama created after the spill.
"There most certainly is irony in the fact that we will, if successful -- and I think we will be -- be able to jump-start a lot of our restoration efforts with this funding, because there are limited sources of other funds available for the kind of work that really needs to be done," Landrieu says, noting that the cost of restoring just her state's coastline has been estimated at more than $30 billion over 20 years.
Just Like TR
The plan has engendered little overt opposition from conservatives, conservationists or budget hawks. Obama endorsed the basic idea last year.
Environmentalists say the bill could present a historic opportunity to slow, and perhaps even reverse, the degradation in the gulf. Tim Richardson, director of government affairs for the American Land Conservancy, likens the measure to the Weeks Act of 1911, which is credited with saving Eastern forests by allowing the federal government to purchase private land east of the Mississippi River.
"This could rival stuff that Theodore Roosevelt did," Richardson says. "It could be a major, major environmental milestone."
The challenges facing the Gulf of Mexico are myriad, many the direct result of activities that form the region's economic backbone. The culprits are clear: human disruption of the natural processes that deliver ingredients essential for a healthy gulf, including sediment and fresh water.
The strain of erosion on coastal wetlands and barrier islands dates from at least the 18th century, when humans began to construct a system of levees along the Mississippi River and its tributaries to counter frequent flooding. In doing so, they unwittingly began to starve the coast of the sediment needed to protect wetlands and barrier islands from erosion.
Exacerbating the problem is the navigational dredging essential for port operations, as well as the network of pipelines and canals associated with oil and gas production. As a result, Louisiana has already lost roughly 2,000 square miles of wetlands since the 1930s. In turn, such erosion makes coastal areas more vulnerable to devastating hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita, which the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources says combined to convert 217 square miles of coastal marsh to open water. That strained populations of birds, loggerhead sea turtles and other species that depend on coastal wetlands and barrier islands for habitat.
Another major challenge is hypoxia, a condition that occurs when dissolved oxygen in water is reduced to a level that makes supporting life difficult or impossible. In the gulf's case, fertilizer-laden farm runoff is blamed each year for a massive algae bloom that forms near the mouth of the Mississippi River, depriving many plant and animal species of the oxygen needed for survival. This year's "dead zone" measured 6,765 square miles -- an area larger than Connecticut.
When it comes to hypoxia, geography works against the gulf. More than half of the land mass of the continental United States drains into the gulf, effectively making it the dumping ground for major urban areas and Midwestern farms. Environmentalists say the solution is clear: stronger regulation of the nutrient-laden runoff that feeds the dead zone.
However, the EPA earlier this year rejected a petition by environmentalists to develop strict water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorous, ingredients in fertilizer that contribute to the gulf's dead zone. While acknowledging that the dead zone and the upstream pollution that feeds it are "issues of serious concern," the EPA said the regulations the groups sought "are not a practical or efficient way" to address the issue, given the scope of the problem.
Instead, the agency said, it would continue existing efforts involving states, tribes and other federal agencies to reduce nutrient loading. Environmentalists argue that those well-intentioned but largely voluntary measures have yielded little progress in shrinking the dead zone. "Basically, nothing has been done," says Matt Rota, the science and water policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a conservation group. That position is echoed by a U.S. Geological Survey study published last summer, which found little progress in reducing nitrate levels between 1980 and 2008.
Whereas erosion and hypoxia are longstanding and well-understood problems, the oil spill raises troubling question about the long-term effects of the contamination on wildlife, including fish species that were already imperiled by environmental threats preceding the spill.
In its final report sent to Obama in July, the presidential commission questioned whether the disaster would finally be a catalyst for action in the gulf. "These three protracted tragedies -- coastal land loss, hypoxia, and the oiling itself -- set up the central question for recovery from the spill: Can or should such a major pollution event steer political energy, human resources and funding into solutions for a continuing systemic tragedy?"
New Restoration Plan
Despite frustration over the lack of results from earlier restoration efforts, one outcome of the BP spill is yet another comprehensive cleanup plan for the gulf, this one from Obama's commission. The preliminary report, released earlier this month by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, outlines a series of broad, long-term recovery goals for the gulf, among them improving and conserving habitat, restoring water quality, boosting populations of coastal and marine resources and improving the resilience of gulf communities.
But unlike past efforts, say advocates of conservation efforts, the latest plan holds the potential for real results -- if the complementary legislation that would provide funding can weave its way through the House and Senate and make it to the president's desk.
After months of tough talks, Gulf Coast lawmakers from both parties crossed one major hurdle, largely agreeing on how the billions of dollars would be divided among the five states.
Both the House and Senate versions would allocate money according to roughly the same formula, with 35 percent of the region's funding split equally among the five states for coastal economic and ecological recovery activities and another 30 percent dedicated to implementing a comprehensive restoration plan based on the work of the task force and overseen by a new state-federal council. An additional 30 percent would be distributed to state restoration plans approved by the restoration council. Those funds would be handed out under an "impact-driven" formula that takes into account such factors as miles per shoreline oiled by the spill. The remaining 5 percent would be used to fund marine research.
Some environmentalists would like to see changes made, such as tweaking language that they say could limit funds to projects within 25 miles of the Gulf Coast, as well as striking language in the House bill that bars new federal land acquisition.
But overall, the legislation is backed by a diverse group that includes conservative lawmakers and national environmental groups. Obama last year endorsed the idea of sending spill fines to the gulf region, as did the Deepwater Horizon commission and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a report requested by the president last year.
Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who is the chief sponsor of the House bill, said the gulf recovery has the potential to transcend even the fractious politics of the 112th Congress.
"This is one of those rare times when we've seen a lot of diverse groups and individuals come together because the cause is something that everyone supports," he said earlier this month. "I think when you look at it as a fairness issue -- the BP disaster happened in the Gulf of Mexico -- I think most people recognize that the fines that BP has to pay and other responsible parties [pay] should stay along the Gulf Coast because we're the ones who are still dealing with the damage."
Whether the bill will cruise to easy passage remains an open question. Proponents in both chambers say they continue to work with leadership on a strategy for bringing legislation to the floor, where latent opposition has a tendency to emerge and amendments can add unrelated controversies.
Landrieu says she's heartened by the growing momentum for the bill but that more work remains before its enactment. "We have a long way to go, but it's moving in the right direction."