01/12/2011 08:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Following up the Oil Spill Commission's Report With True Gulf Restoration

The final report of President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling provides a chilling and comprehensive account of the lead-up and response to the BP oil disaster. We have much to learn from the sequence of events it lays out and the recommendations for offshore drilling reform it makes. But the recommendations go further, providing an important roadmap for restoring the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem to a healthy, resilient state.

At the heart of those recommendations is a call for congressional action relating to Clean Water Act fines. Congress failed to act last year on proposals to dedicate 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines assessed against BP for restoration of the Gulf environment. This -- and other commission recommendations relating to the Gulf ecosystem -- demand swift action by Congress, the Obama administration and industry. As commission co-chair William Reilly said yesterday, a healthy Gulf of Mexico is essential to the health of our ocean and economy, and we owe it the people of the Gulf region to respond to these recommendations with bold action.

We expect hearings in the Senate and the House in the coming weeks. Our government should advance four restoration policy priorities as soon as possible:

  • Create a permanently-funded, long-term monitoring and research program to strengthen management of marine natural resources. We suggest that Congress establish an endowment using $1 billion from Clean Water Act fines to be held in a Treasury account for funding integrated monitoring programs that will measure the effectiveness of Gulf restoration efforts for years and decades to come. The funds would also be used to assess lingering damages, improve understanding of the Gulf ecosystem, and guide future decision-making and resource management. A $1 billion endowment would yield an inflation-proof annual revenue stream of about $50 million, which should be awarded competitively to government agencies, academic institutions, and other appropriate entities to conduct science that evaluates Gulf restoration progress, and indicates where we may need to make changes.
  • Reduce pollution in the Mississippi River watershed to shrink the "dead zone" and improve marine health. The commission's report has identified hypoxia, or the "dead zone," as a major impediment to the Gulf's recovery. Hypoxia's harm to marine resources may include long-term, ecological changes in species diversity, and possibly a profound, hard-to-reverse reorganization of the the ecosystem's food web. Dead zones also deplete fishery resources, which means less fishing opportunities and lower yields for fishermen who've already lost income and subsistence from the BP disaster. Most of the excess nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, that suck the life out of the Gulf come from the Mississippi River, mostly due to fertilizer runoff from farmland. To remedy the problem, we must increase targeted assistance to farmers in priority counties to encourage voluntary actions such as installing conservation buffers, restoring or creating absorbent wetlands, and implementing conservation tillage practices.
  • Restore and sustain Gulf of Mexico fisheries through strategic investments in science, technology, fishing fleet performance, and strategies to restore depleted fish populations. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus identified fisheries as a critical part of a healthy Gulf in his report to President Obama. To preserve them, we need more robust and accurate information on the status of valuable fish populations, especially those that support multibillion-dollar fishing industries and are essential to recreational fishing. Gulf fisheries will be better positioned for success in the 21st Century if fishing fleets improve their environmental and economic performances. This can be done through gear modernization and conversion, investments in cleaner and more fuel-efficient fishing gear, and optimization of fisheries.
  • Enhance key habitats and ecosystem services by restoring oyster reefs and seagrass beds - two habitats with high ecological and economic value that have been weakened or lost due to natural and human impacts in the Gulf of Mexico. Restoration would combat erosion and provide valuable new habitat that increases the productivity of fisheries and enhances the overall health of the Gulf ecosystem. Employing oyster fishermen in the rebuilding effort will build upon existing knowledge and infrastructure while creating local jobs. In a recent restoration project in east Florida, approximately 100 jobs were created to restore 2500 acres of oyster reefs.

The Gulf of Mexico continues to pay the price for decades of neglect and degradation. Such neglect continues to threaten its fish, wildlife, and the people who depend on a healthy ocean for jobs and business. Both President Obama and the National Oil Spill Commission have emphasized the importance of restoring the Gulf of Mexico to a truly healthy and resilient condition. It's time for both industry and government to do everything possible to renew the prosperity of the Gulf through bold action on restoration.