Updated: Panel Draws Gulf Coast Restoration Road Map

An expert task force has released a draft road map for restoring the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem that could help steer the use of billions of dollars in fines that BP and other companies are expected to pay for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The report comes as Republican members of the House of Representatives today introduced legislation that is expected to call for a significant portion of the fines to be earmarked for research.

Last October, President Barack Obama established the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to come up with a plan to not only restore ecosystems damaged by the spill but also to repair decades of past damage done by efforts to reengineer the Mississippi River and expand oil and gas drilling in gulf marshes. The task force, made up of senior federal officials and representatives from the five Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, held a series of public meetings over the past year and sought input from a wide range of scientists.

The result is a set of sweeping but relatively general recommendations aimed at bolstering both the science and the political support needed to tackle some highly complex restoration challenges. It sets out four major goals—restoring and conserving habitat, restoring water quality, replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources, and enhancing community resilience—along with 19 “major actions” needed to accomplish the goals.

The need for better science gets plenty of ink—including calls for more comprehensive gulf monitoring and data-collection systems. But the report also notes that “the dire state of many elements of the Gulf ecosystem cannot wait for scientific certainty and demand immediate action.” To avoid delays, the panel proposes an “adaptive management” process of “learning by doing, wherein flexibility is built into projects, and actions can be changed based on” new science and progress toward goals.

The report stops short of identifying specific restoration projects, recommending that Congress give that authority to a new oversight council that would take the place of the task force. Such a council is called for by legislation passed last month by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The RESTORE the Gulf Act of 2011 (S. 1400) also calls for funneling up to 80% of any Clean Water Act fines levied for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into environmental and economic restoration along the Gulf Coast. That could create a significant pool of money because BP is facing fines of $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion. Under the Senate bill, 35% of the restoration funds would be allocated in equal shares to the five Gulf Coast states, 60% would go to the new restoration council, and 5% would be allocated to a new research, science and technology program.

A group of House Republicans will introduce a companion measure today to the Senate bill, but its details are not yet known.

For more on the gulf oil spill, see our full coverage.

Update: The House measure introduced today maintains the overall distribution of the money but puts some limits on the 5% share that would be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more details, see the upcoming issue of Science.