Signs of progress for the Mississippi River Delta

Long before the 2010 BP oil spill, the Mississippi River Delta was hurting.

The delta's vast wetlands have been eroding for decades, exposing New Orleans and coastal communities to hurricanes and oil spills. The land loss is mostly caused by oil and gas canals and levees along the Mississippi River, which deprive the delta of water and sediment to replenish wetlands.

The disappearing coastline also endangers a $23 billion fishing industry, the nation’s most significant port complex, key oil and gas infrastructure, and habitat for tens of millions of migrating birds.

EDF and many other groups knew action was urgently needed. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico only worsened the problem. But where would the money come from?

Now there is good news. More than four years after the oil disaster, a stream of money for restoring the Gulf has begun flowing in. EDF and our coalition partners have been fiercely engaged from the start to see that BP is held fully accountable for its role in the oil disaster and that penalties from the spill go primarily for Gulf restoration.

Push for restoration shows results

The sources of revenue include $2.54 billion from the BP criminal settlement and an initial $800 million from a civil settlement with Transocean, the owner and operator of the oil rig that exploded and set off the disaster.

Also, BP is releasing $370 million for coastal Louisiana restoration, out of the $1 billion pledged to kick-start restoration across the Gulf.

Fighting for restitution

In 2010, when the BP oil spill occurred, EDF and our conservation partners sensed a key opportunity to launch a restoration plan, which we had worked toward for decades.

  • We helped draft legislation that directs the majority of funds from oil spill penalties — which will number in the billions of dollars — to restore vanishing wetlands and create jobs.
  • EDF coastal scientist Angelina Freeman

    EDF's former coastal scientist, Dr. Angelina Freeman, works on rebuilding wetlands by reconnecting the Mississippi to its natural floodplain.

    Photo by: Yuki Kokubo.

  • We helped shape Louisiana's 2012 Coastal Master Plan, based on rigorous science with input from a diverse team of stakeholders. The plan will serve as the guiding document for the restoration.
  • We used science to show how major players — including unlikely partners such as the oil industry — stand to benefit from restoration.
  • We then formed a larger group of partnerships to help keep up momentum for change.

The result? The passage of the RESTORE Act in June 2012 — marking a major turning point for the Gulf Coast environment and economy.

'Without these partners, restoration wouldn’t be possible'

To get RESTORE off the ground, EDF gathered support from the restaurant industry, the shipping and construction industries, and oystermen and other powerful groups that could derail our vision if their interests were not accounted for.

"We found the right business voices. Without these partners, restoration wouldn’t be possible," explained EDF senior counsel James Tripp, who has been working in the Gulf for 40 years.

Job creation was critical

While wetland restoration was key, so was helping local communities. Partnering with Duke University, we circulated studies showing that environmental restoration would create jobs in a myriad of sectors nationwide.

Restoring an ecosystem — such as the Gulf Coast — not only creates new restoration-related jobs, but also protects fishing and tourism jobs, as well as jobs linked to critical infrastructure such as shipping, oil and gas and railways that all rely on coastal wetlands for natural storm protection.

We gathered bipartisan support

With the right partners in place backing us, EDF helped shape a bill in Washington that dedicated 80% of oil spill fines to wetlands restoration and economic recovery instead of to the general federal budget.

EDF bridged the differences between political parties by introducing provisions that were important to both Republicans and Democrats, then built consensus among the five Gulf states: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In the end, the RESTORE Act passed with a strong bipartisan majority.

The next steps

Guiding the restoration of Louisiana’s coastline is the state’s master plan, which balances the use of natural processes to rebuild wetlands with traditional engineering and flood protection projects, including levee construction and home elevation. EDF’s former coastal scientist, Dr. Angelina Freeman, co-managed a team of scientists and engineers that showed how reconnecting the Mississippi River to its natural floodplain would rebuild wetlands.

Once large-scale restoration begins, the next step is to ensure the most environmentally beneficial projects are green-lighted. Already money is being funneled toward rebuilding four barrier islands that will buffer storm surge and provide vital habitat for birds, as well as to smaller projects, including research.

Science can make us much better leaders, if we would just listen to our scientists and to the actual research.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) at a Senate committee hearing on the progress of restoration

Holding BP accountable

Still, a long road lies ahead to full restitution. In 2013, BP squared off with the government and other claimants in court over its role in the Gulf oil disaster, facing additional civil fines of up to $17.4 billion. The third and final phase of trial is in early 2015.

"There won’t be justice for the Gulf until the case against BP is resolved and the billions in fines can begin flowing in," says Steve Cochran, director of our Mississippi River Delta work.

EDF’s expertise in the region proved invaluable as we put together recommendations to restore the Gulf Coast.

Ray Mabus Secretary of the Navy and the administration’s point person in the Gulf of Mexico

40% of the nation’s remaining coastal wetlands are in Louisiana.

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