Remembrance of Tragedy, Processes for Healing

Deepwater Horizon, Five Years Later
ELI Gulf Team, April 20, 2015

Deepwater Horizon explosion

It was five years ago today that a blowout rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leading to one of the worst oil spills in the nation’s history. Healing from a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is not simply achieved with restoration and recovery funding. Instead, healing is a process that restoration and recovery funding can support. So the question is, where are we with restoration and recovery funding?

Where We Are:

Several major processes are underway in the Gulf to help the region and its communities recover from the injuries caused by the oil spill. Funding has come through three main sources: the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, the criminal settlements, and the civil settlements (see graphic below).

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There has been particular focus on three funding processes, which are circled in red above: the natural resource damage assessment, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the RESTORE Act. Below is a brief overview of each of these processes, what funds have been obligated to date, and what sorts of projects can be funded.

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Through these processes, $4.3 billion is available for projects, though as discussed in the “Where We’re Going” section, significantly more may be available in the coming years. Of the $4.3 billion that is currently available, $1.1 billion has already been obligated to projects (see where the money has been spent in our Restoration Projects Map).

What do the restoration projects look like? Examples demonstrate some of the key focuses for each of the processes (all links are to the project pages in our Restoration Projects Database).

aerial of powderhorn ranch
Powderhorn Ranch. Credit: NFWF.

With the NFWF funds, the focus is on “remedy[ing] harm to resources” injured by the spill. Examples include $3.6 million to fund the Mississippi Coastal Restoration Plan program, which supports the development of an “integrated, far-reaching restoration plan” designed to form a framework for restoration projects and programs in the state. Another example is the Powderhorn Ranch Acquisition Project in Texas, which provides $34.5 million to fund the purchase of a 17,351 acre area that includes a number of coastal habitats; the project also funds habitat restoration activities, management, and ongoing stewardship.

Under the NRDA process, the focus is on the natural resources injured by the oil spill. Although the assessment is still ongoing, there are a number of restoration projects underway. This is a result of BP agreeing to fund up to $1 billion to start some projects early (they are called “early restoration” projects). One example of an early restoration project is the Enhanced Management of Avian Breeding Habitat project, which is intended to restore an area damaged by activities undertaken to respond to the spill. Another example is the Perdido Boat Ramp, which is intended to compensate the public for its inability to use certain natural resources because of the spill.

Unlike NRDA and NFWF, no projects have been approved under the RESTORE Act buckets yet. What will these projects look like? We will know more in the coming months, as the entities leading the processes determine how the funds will be spent. These entities will, however, be guided by the RESTORE Act, which sets out activities eligible for funding.

Where We Are Going:

Weeks Bay, Alabama.
Weeks Bay, Alabama.

Five years after the spill, there is still much to be determined. Under the NRDA process, trustees are currently evaluating injuries, estimating compensation owed for the injuries, and developing a plan for restoring the injured resources. It is anticipated that much more money will be available for projects once the assessment is complete. It may, however, be a number of years before we know what that amount will be.

As for NFWF, it will be receiving funding over a five-year period (with the majority of funds being received in 2017 and 2018). So, in addition to the almost $400 million of project funding that has already been allocated, there is still more than $2 billion in funding to be spent.

As for RESTORE, it is still unclear how much funding will be available. While we know that at least $800 million will flow through the act (this is 80% of the $1 billion settlement that Transocean reached with the federal government for Clean Water Act civil penalties), it is still unclear how much more money will be available. This is because Clean Water Act civil penalties against BP and Anadarko have yet to be determined. These penalties are the subject of litigation in New Orleans, where the federal government has argued that BP should be liable for the maximum penalty (based on rulings of the court, which are being appealed, the maximum amount is $13.7 billion). The court has yet to issue a final opinion on the matter and, even after it does so, it is likely to be appealed. It could therefore be a number of years before we know the amount of money that will flow through RESTORE.

Deepwater Horizon, Five Years Later:

The Gulf from Biloxi, Mississippi.

As we have seen, Deepwater Horizon oil spill recovery will not take place in a matter of weeks, months, or even years. It could take decades more. Already, however, we have seen numerous efforts to steer recovery in a direction that provides greater benefits for the Gulf. For example, efforts at the local, regional, and national levels led to the passage of the RESTORE Act, ensuring that some of the penalties from parties responsible for the spill go to heal the Gulf environment and economy. In addition, public participation has positively influenced projects, programs, and the restoration processes themselves.

There are a number of ways to engage and participate. Here at ELI, we will continue to follow the Gulf restoration processes and will aim to provide information, trainings, and tools that make it easier to understand where we are with Gulf recovery. In addition to the resources we provide, you can think about joining a group that is working on these issues, where you can learn more about what is going on in your community and give your views. Or you can attend meetings, suggest restoration projects, comment on projects that are suggested, and monitor projects.

As time passes and the regional processes continue, it is essential not to view the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a discrete event, safely ensconced in archived footage of oil gushing into the Gulf for 87 days in 2010. The oil has stopped flowing, but processes designed for healing, restoration, and recovery – like NFWF, NRDA, and RESTORE – are just beginning.

Credit: ELI