How Spill Settlement Money from BP May Save the Gulf Coast

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

I was sitting shotgun in a speedboat chugging along veiny canals that cut through southern Louisiana's coastline, during the Gulf oil spill in the summer of 2010. There was plenty to see that was out of the ordinary during that tragic summer, but I noticed something else a bit worrisome. According to the pilot's GPS device, our boat — skimming at top speed through a wide canal — should have been beached on land. When I pointed this out to the pilot, he just waved me off. The maps in the GPS database dated back a couple of decades, and the coastline had eroded significantly since, destroying the land and opening up new passages through the water. "I have to keep it all in my head," the pilot said. "It just changes too fast."

Since the Army Corps of Engineers built huge levees some 80 years ago to protect New Orleans from flooding — not always successfully — the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River has been sinking. That's because the levees block the silt that used to go downriver along the Mississippi — and at the same time, hundreds of miles of canals built to support oil and gas infrastructure have further chopped up the remaining land. Without that steady resupply of what is, essentially, the muddy sediment that makes up the coast, the Mississippi Delta is helpless against the rising seas and severe storms that batter the Gulf. It's no surprise that Louisiana loses 25 to 35 sq. mi. (65 to 90 sq km) of shoreline and wetlands per year, and the state has lost 1,883 sq. mi. (4,876 sq km) of land during the past 80 years — an area three-quarters the size of Delaware.

And here's the kicker: that slow-motion ecological catastrophe was underway before the Deepwater Horizon accident happened in 2010, spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, much of which found its way to the coastline. Fishermen bore the brunt — at one point, 40% of Gulf waters were closed to fishing — and many have yet to recover, complaining that shrimp and oyster populations have not fully rebounded. That's one reason that earlier this month BP reached a settlement — initially set at $7.8 billion, though the figure could rise significantly — with hundreds of thousands of Gulf residents who say they've been hurt by the spill. Even if Gulf fishing and other livelihoods are never the same as they were prespill, at least those affected will receive some financial restitution.

But the oil spill may yield a surprising benefit for the long-suffering Louisiana coastline. Under the Clean Water Act, BP will also likely need to pay the U.S. government billions of dollars — more than $17.5 billion, in fact, if BP is judged to have acted with gross negligence. And there are potentially billions in damages more for state and local governments as well — money that could come fairly soon if, as expected, BP ends up settling rather than going to court. Suddenly tens of billions of dollars could be available to remake the Gulf Coast's economy and its environment — if the money is used in the right way.

That's what many conservationists hope will happen with a proposed 50-year, $50 billion Louisiana plan that calls for large-scale restoration of wetlands and the construction of new and better levees throughout the Mississippi Delta region. New sluices in the current Mississippi River levees would allow sediment to flow to the coastline again, rebuilding land lost to the rising seas. Nearly $20 billion would be spent on marsh creation throughout the southern Louisiana area. If the plan works, the drafters foresee an end to net erosion in 30 years and the creation of up to 859 sq. mi. (2,225 sq km) of coast over the next five decades. If nothing is done, the plan predicts Louisiana could lose another 1,756 sq. mi. (4,548 sq km) over that time. "The state of Louisiana has tackled this world-class problem with a world-class approach," William Dennison, a marine scientist with the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, told the Associated Press in January. "They are making a strong case that this is not just a Louisiana issue, but it is a national issue."

The draft plan isn't the first attempt to reverse southern Louisiana's crippling erosion, but the possibility of BP money means this one might actually be carried out. The proposed project, which has the backing of Governor Bobby Jindal, will be put before the state legislature on March 26. If it's enacted, it could also serve as a model for other coastal communities grappling with the impact of climate change, including more severe storms and rising sea levels. Louisiana may experience the worst coastal erosion in the country — more than 90% of the coastal wetland lost in the lower 48 states was once part of the Pelican State — but it's hardly alone. New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida are all being hit too.

Still, the threat of climate change is one reason some critics wonder if it's worth spending all that money to save a coastline that — in a warming world — may not be salvageable. Sea levels could rise by 3 ft. (1 m) by the end of the century, depending on the rate of ice melt and our ability to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The existing levees have failed in the past — including after Hurricane Katrina, as my colleague Michael Grunwald has written about regularly. Is it really worth spending tens of billions of dollars to wage a war against erosion that may not be winnable?

Still, the draft plan looks promising — and it comes none too soon. The Louisiana coast has been battered by the oil and gas industry, by the mechanics of flood protection, by hundred-year hurricanes and finally by the Deepwater Horizon accident. The people — and the land itself — deserve some help, even if does come in the form of BP blood money.