E&E: Restoration panel adds scientific oversight to plan for spending spill fines

Annie Snider, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, August 22, 2013

The federal-state panel tasked with overseeing the billions of dollars
expected to flow to the Gulf Coast from civil fines related to the 2010
Deepwater Horizon oil spill yesterday released a final plan for how it
will spend the money on restoring the region’s ecosystems and
economies.

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council received more than 41,000
comments on the draft plan it released in May and incorporated a
handful of changes into the final “Initial Comprehensive Plan” released
yesterday. The council is scheduled to vote on that plan next week in
New Orleans.

Under the RESTORE Act passed by Congress last year, 80 percent of Clean
Water Act civil penalties from the oil spill will be sent back to the
Gulf through the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Trust Fund. The
council — comprising officials from six federal agencies and the five
Gulf states — oversees 60 percent of those funds. Thirty percent will
go to projects selected by the council, and another 30 percent will go
to initiatives selected by the states and approved by the panel.

The “Initial Comprehensive Plan” sets overarching restoration goals for
the region, lays out how the council will evaluate and fund projects
and describes how it will consider states’ plans for spending their
share of the money.

Among the changes made in the final plan is an increased focus on
incorporating science into the council’s work. The plan states that the
council is considering “the most effective means of ensuring that the
Council’s decisions are based on the best available science.” This
could include forming a scientific advisory committee or another
vehicle that would work across Gulf restoration efforts, it says. In
the council’s response to public comments, it also raises the
possibility of hiring a chief scientist.

The plan also includes a greater emphasis on public engagement. It
states that the council “will take steps to create a public engagement
structure” and that additional announcements on this are forthcoming.

Like the draft plan released in May, the final document does not
include a 10-year plan for allocating the money or a list of priority
projects and programs, both of which were already due under the RESTORE
Act. The council said it did not include these elements because of
uncertainties related to the amount of money that will ultimately flow
to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Trust Fund, the fact that the
Treasury Department has not yet issued procedures for spending the
funds, the desire to receive public comment on key elements of the plan
first and the states’ ongoing efforts to develop their own spending
plans.

The Treasury Department sent its proposed rule to the Office of
Management and Budget earlier this month, and it could be finalized
soon.

The leading coalition of environmental groups working in the Gulf Coast
released a statement on the plan last night.

“We thank the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council for its efforts
toward a comprehensive plan to restore the invaluable Gulf ecosystem,”
said the group, which includes the Environmental Defense Fund, National
Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Coalition to Restore
Coastal Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. “As the
Council takes its next crucial step of prioritizing ecosystem
restoration projects, we urge them to embrace the Louisiana Coastal
Master Plan as its guiding document for restoring the Mississippi River
Delta, which was ground zero for the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.”

Currently, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Trust Fund is scheduled
to receive $800 million within the next two years from Transocean
Ltd.’s Clean Water Act civil settlement. BP PLC could be facing a civil
penalty of as much as $17.6 billion under the Clean Water Act,
depending on how negligent the driller is found to have been leading up
to the spill. The second phase in the federal trial against the oil
giant is scheduled to begin next month.

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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