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Sound Science Needed for Gulf Restoration
Four years ago the BP oil spill killed eleven workers and sent more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Two years ago the RESTORE Act passed, which will send 80% of Clean Water Act civil fines paid by BP and other companies responsible for the disaster back to the Gulf States.
It has now been one year since the Initial Comprehensive Plan was released, developed by the Gulf Council to serve as a guide when restoring the ecosystem.
But to date, the funds from this law are not yet being used to restore the Gulf.
Currently, $800 million from the Transocean settlement is available via the RESTORE Act, but that funding is still tied up. More money—far more money—will be available once the BP trial concludes either by settlement or through the conclusion of the legal process.
Project Evaluation & Selection
But a bit of progress has happened of late. The Restore Council recently released a project selection and evaluation framework, indicating how projects will be selected and vetted. This came on the heels of an oversight hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee, during which the Restore Council was told to “Get on with it!”.
Last month the Council announced a process for individual Council members to submit projects. This process will ultimately result in an initial list of priorities intended to receive funding.
The good news is that an external expert science review is part of the project evaluation. In particular, the “science evaluation engine” will establish if a project has utilized the best available science and will establish the scientific basis of the proposed activity.
While this is a good first step, it does not go quite far enough. One big problem is that the reviewers will be working on a volunteer basis, so there is no guarantee scientists with the most relevant expertise will be involved in evaluating a particular project. Furthermore, there is no ranking or scoring mechanisms to ensure that the best projects rise to the top of the list.
This week the Council announced that Russell H. Beard will serve as interim Science Coordinator “until such time as a permanent hire comes on board”. While this is a step forward, we encourage the Council to hire a full-time Science Coordinator as quickly as possible in order to coordinate reviews, locate proper reviewers for the proposed projects, and ensure objectivity in project selection.
In addition, it will be important to spell out how projects will be compared and prioritized. With so many ecosystem needs in the Gulf Coast region, difficult decisions lie ahead. But one thing is for sure: the Council should invest in the very best projects. This will require a selection process that is both objective and transparent.
The headlines from the past several weeks make it eminently clear that the Gulf of Mexico is in dire need of restoration: Oyster production throughout the Gulf remains low, the number of sea turtle nests appear to be dropping, additional damaged corals have been discovered, and the dead zone is the size of Connecticut.