A few signatures kick off the next phase of oil spill recovery that could revive long-term habitat health in the Gulf
BP and a federal judge have finally made it official—the historic settlement between the states, the federal government, and BP has been signed. Now, the Gulf of Mexico’s fish, wildlife, and habitat—not to mention the communities that depend on outdoor recreation dollars—can move forward in the ongoing process of repairing damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
The details of the settlement weren’t breaking news by the time U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier made the consent decree official with the stroke of a pen on April 4. In fact, many of the particulars, including the $20.8-billion total penalty, were released to the public after all parties agreed in principle last October.
This doesn’t mean that we’ll be breaking ground on ecosystem-scale restoration projects tomorrow. After all, BP has more than 15 years to pay in full. It does, however, mark another important milestone in a recovery effort large enough in scale that it could repair the damage caused by the spill as well as ongoing habitat losses and water quality impairments that threaten the long-term health of the Gulf.
The agreement also means that the veil can be lifted on the volumes of data collected by state and federal agencies intensively studying the adverse effects of the oil on fish, birds, turtles, marine mammals, and thousands of plants, crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates that play a crucial role in the intricate Gulf ecosystem. Gag orders during ongoing negotiations prevented the sharing of most of that information with the public, which frustrated journalists, conservationists, sportsmen, and anyone else wondering about the true toll of the nation’s worst environmental disaster. Once that information is made public, we can better engage in and advocate for the projects that best address the damages.
If you’re interested in the nitty gritty details, BP will pay $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, 80 percent of which will go to economic and ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf, thanks to the Restore Act signed into law in 2012. More than $8 billion will be paid in Natural Resource Damage Assessment fines to be used on projects that directly address the damage to creatures, habitats, and the users whose access to the resources was, and in some cases continues to be, disrupted by the spill. And, BP also owes states and local governments nearly $6 billion to make up for lost revenues.
The TRCP and its sportfishing and habitat conservation partners have been working diligently with hunters, anglers, policy-makers, the media, and elected officials across the region for the last five years to help ensure that Gulf fish and fishermen are made a priority throughout the restoration effort. This group has formally recommended projects and initiatives that improve habitat, increase and improve fisheries research and data collection, and improve access for anglers. Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into projects already selected to receive funding.
Considering that recreational fishing contributes more than $10 billion annually to the region’s economy and supports nearly 100,000 jobs in Gulf states, investing in projects that improve angling opportunities ensures the viability of coastal communities from Brownsville, Texas, to Key West, Fla. But, the only way those investments are made wisely is if anglers across the Gulf and throughout the nation continue to insist that restoration dollars make it to the habitat and fish. We can’t let this game-changing settlement get eaten up by legislative pet-projects, state budget band-aids, and bureaucratic boondoggles.
Anglers also need to keep a close eye on projects and initiatives that aim to limit or prevent fishing opportunities. The net result of this lengthy restoration and recovery effort should be more quality chances to hunt and fish, not fewer.
As the sixth anniversary of the spill approaches, the settlement’s approval is reason to be thankful that the funds needed to address damages and make the Gulf a better place won’t be tied up in a decade-long legal battle. However, the difficult task of ensuring that penalties have lasting, positive effects on the region’s natural resources and communities is just beginning.
If you want to make sure we continue this important work in the Gulf, consider donating to the TRCP.