A Resolution for Gulf Restoration: An Open Letter to President Obama and the Five Gulf State Governors

Nearly two years after the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history, a trial to determine the liability of BP and other responsible parties is slated to begin this month.
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Nearly two years after the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history, a trial to determine the liability of BP and other responsible parties is slated to begin this month. However, parties to the case may agree to a resolution at any time before or during the trial. A resolution or trial will influence the future of our natural resources, livelihoods and ways of life for generations to come. Shortly after the disaster occurred, both President Obama and BP promised to restore the health of the Gulf of Mexico. We are calling on the Gulf states, federal government and BP to make good on these promises for the natural resources and the people who depend on them in crafting any resolution of this matter.

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster impacted a large portion of the Gulf ecosystem along with the region's economies and communities. At the height of this disaster oil was washing onto the shores of the Gulf coast -- and 37 percent of federal Gulf waters (88,500 square miles) were closed to fishing. This damage occurred against a backdrop of decades-long challenges ranging from the loss and degradation of wetlands and barrier islands along the coast to formation of oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in the northern Gulf to overfishing and lost fisheries productivity. In order to make good on commitments to restore the Gulf ecosystem to a healthy condition, restoration must address both short- and long-term damage in three key areas: coastal environments, blue-water habitats and resources, and coastal communities.

Ocean Conservancy has worked in the Gulf of Mexico for more than two decades on fisheries and wildlife conservation. This engagement has expanded and deepened following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The following recommendations comprise what Ocean Conservancy would consider to be an appropriate and successful resolution -- by whatever means -- of federal and state claims against BP and other responsible parties.

1. Sentinel system for the future. Establish monitoring and management systems to identify and address any lingering injury from BP oil, evaluate effectiveness of restoration projects and make necessary adjustments based on performance in achieving goals. Furthermore, establish a permanent science program to "take the pulse of the Gulf" to monitor ecosystem health, identify emerging problems and facilitate solutions. Natural Resource Damage restoration, as well as broader ecosystem restoration, requires the support of a long-term science program, and such a program would best be supported by an endowment managed by an independent decision-making body with the necessary professional and scientific staff. The establishment and endowment of a permanent Gulf of Mexico monitoring, observation and research program is critical so we better understand the complex and dynamic Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and adapt resource management in order to ensure continued ecological health, biodiversity, and economic viability.

2. An effective "reopener" clause. Successful resolution of state and federal claims against BP and other responsible parties must take into account the possibility that some impacts of the oil disaster may not be apparent for years or even decades. If the sentinel system described above detects disaster-related injuries subsequent to the resolution of this case, BP and other responsible parties must take corrective actions.

3. Ecosystem-wide restoration that benefits coastal communities. Restoration must take the big picture into account. The interlinked nature of the Gulf's coastal and marine resources, combined with the fact that environmental stressors are associated with both land and ocean-based activities, makes an ecologically and geographically balanced restoration approach essential. In addition, restoration must take into account the economic and cultural aspects of Gulf communities supported by the Gulf ecosystem and enable Gulf residents to benefit not only from long-term gains in sustainable ecosystem services, but also from near-term employment, workforce development and formation of intellectual capital for a restoration economy.

4. Sound management of restoration activities. An effective governance structure is essential for restoring the Gulf of Mexico. It should include an independent decision-making body, with its own professional staff, to guide the development and implementation of a comprehensive restoration plan, including scientific peer review and public participation. The governance structure must also incorporate the following elements: efficient, transparent and responsive management that is accountable to the public; active and full participation by relevant federal entities and Gulf states; commitment to incorporating local and traditional knowledge in management decisions; coordination between NRDA and broader ecosystem restoration initiatives; and a comprehensive, science-based, ecosystem-focused restoration strategy supplemented by annual work plans and progress reports.

5. Prudent restoration project selection. Specific restoration projects must be coordinated and integrated within the framework of a comprehensive ecosystem restoration strategy; be linked to specific, measurable, and feasible outcomes; and subject to independent scientific review peer review in the selection and evaluation processes.

The oil disaster has caused unprecedented damage to both the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources and people. But from this disaster comes an opportunity to chart a new future for the Gulf. Creating this future requires an unwavering vision and dedication to ecosystem restoration that recognizes the importance of making the Gulf whole and holding BP and other responsible parties accountable. Adopting these recommendations will help ensure a healthy, biodiverse Gulf of Mexico and strong, vibrant Gulf Coast communities for generations to come.

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