08/27/2010 07:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fulfilling President Obama's Gulf Coast Restoration Pledge

Three days before President Obama's visit to Louisiana to commemorate the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, a broad, bi-partisan coalition sent a letter urging the president to publicly reaffirm his support for long overdue coastal restoration and protection efforts along the Gulf coast, specifically by supporting a reinvestment of fines collected by BP for coastal restoration.

"Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it's also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region...That's why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible."

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives took an important first step toward fulfilling the President's pledge. It passed a bill to respond to the oil spill disaster, the CLEAR Act (H.R. 3534), which included a provision authored by Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-La.) that would direct new funding to restore the damaged Gulf Coast. Instead of adding to the deficit, the new work would be funded from a portion of the penalties that BP will pay for the damage it has caused to the natural resources of the Gulf.

To make the President's pledge a reality, it's critical that the Senate act as soon as possible when Congress returns from its August recess to dedicate funding from oil spill penalties to Gulf Coast restoration. U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has proposed that no less than 80 percent of any civil and criminal penalties paid by BP under the Clean Water Act should be dedicated to the long-term recovery of the Gulf Coast. Those penalties will range between $1,100 and $4,300 per barrel spilled, totaling between $5 billion and $21 billion.

Two days before the House vote, our groups--Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, along with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and National Audubon Society--released a report entitled, "Common Ground: A Shared Vision for Restoring the Mississippi River Delta." In the report, we outline the steps necessary to restore and rebuild an ecosystem that has been in decline long before the BP oil spill. For millennia, the Mississippi River deposited its huge sediment loads in the Delta, building and sustaining new land. However, intensive dredging and offshore energy development severed the vital link between the river and the wetlands. The result: since the 1930s, more than a million acres of wetlands -- an area larger than the state of Delaware -- have sunk underwater.

Based on our organizations' collective 160 years of work on Louisiana coastal restoration, we recommend that the Administration move forward boldly to reverse this long-term man-made disaster. To pay for the restoration work, our report calls for the Obama administration to negotiate with BP for an initial $5 billion commitment to pay for expected damages to natural resources. While the Melancon amendment provides a smaller amount -- up to $1.2 billion -- it still represents a critically needed down payment on a major Gulf restoration initiative.

The Senate should take similar action to dedicate a portion of BP's penalties to restoring the Gulf, creating thousands of new jobs on large projects that will restore the Mississippi River's capacity to build land.

In Louisiana -- the Gulf state hardest-hit by the BP oil spill -- the massive spread of oil and chemical dispersants is likely to accelerate the loss of coastal wetlands, leaving an already-weakened ecosystem even more vulnerable to storms, as well as to additional man-made assaults. Without restoration, each new disaster will sow the seeds of more destruction -- of wetlands, wildlife, and communities -- down the line, and Louisiana's coastal region will remain on a path to eventual destruction.

This threat should concern everyone in the United States. The Mississippi River Delta is home to nearly two million people and supports rich, diverse communities whose culture, lives and livelihoods are inextricably intertwined with the river and its resources. From the ducks that spend the winter in coastal marshes; to the abundant seafood -- shrimps, crabs, oysters, finfish found in restaurants throughout the country; to the oil and gas production and processing that provides 1/3 of the nation's fossil fuel; to the navigation system on the river itself that is critically important to shipping of bulk commodities -- the industry and resources of the Mississippi River Delta touch lives throughout the nation and support the national economy.

The path to restoring the Mississippi River Delta begins with reestablishing the river's long-severed connection to the delta. When the river and its sediment are reconnected to the wetlands, the wetlands will be resupplied with sediment, and land can be reborn.

In addition to negotiating with BP to put $5 billion in escrow to pay for expected damages to the natural resources of the coast, our "Common Ground" report recommends:

1. Amending the Oil Pollution Act to create a separate fund for Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Delta restoration that includes:

• Payments from BP for natural resource damages under the Oil Pollution Act;

• Penalty payments from BP under the Clean Water Act;

• A dedicated per-barrel tax.

2. Seeking a supplemental appropriation of $500 million from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) ecosystem restoration program Congress authorized in the 2007 Water Development Resources Act (WRDA) and raising the amount available under the trust fund for this disaster.

3. Seeking at least $155 million in appropriations for the LCA construction program in Fiscal Year 2012.

4. Completing construction of congressionally authorized Louisiana coastal restoration projects within five years.

While the BP oil disaster still is high on the national agenda, the Senate should act now on our primary recommendation: designating the funding needed to fulfill the President's pledge to make the Gulf Coast better than before the oil disaster began. Otherwise, we risk losing critical momentum -- and five years after Hurricane Katrina -- leaving Louisiana in peril, while putting our nation's fragile economy at further risk.

Karla Raettig is the Nation Campaign Director for the National Wildlife Federation's Coastal Louisiana Restoration Project and co-author of "Common Ground: A Shared Vision for Restoring the Mississippi River Delta."

If you want to see a video showing how coastal Louisiana has lost more than a million acres of wetlands since the 1930s, check out "Before the BP Oil Disaster - Decades of Destruction," at