The Common Good

Faith and Grace for the Gulf

In huge news last week that was largely overwhelmed by the Supreme Court ruling on health care, Washington came together to direct the Clean Water Act fines from BP's oil drilling disaster of 2010 to fund Gulf coast restoration and recovery.  

Attached to the transportation bill that President Obama signed on July 6 was a provision called the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies) the Gulf Coast Act, which will send 80 percent of BP's eventual fines (likely somewhere between $4-$20 billion) to the five Gulf states and set up an ecosystem restoration council with joint state and federal leadership.

Faith communities should cheer this news for a couple of reasons. First, they asked for it. The legislation has been supported by many different faith-led efforts, such as a letter signed by over 140 religious leaders from Sojourners own Jim Wallis, Mitch Hescox of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and many clergy from around the nation. Local Gulf faith leaders spoke up as well, with the Louisiana Interchurch Conference passing a resolution calling on their member groups to support and lead efforts for Gulf recovery and the RESTORE Act.  

Second, there is no group that has more sweat equity in the Gulf's recovery than our nation's churches.  According to Father Dan Krutz, the Executive Director of Louisiana Interchurch Conference, "the Faith community has been steadfast in their support for Gulf coast communities, and were some of the most consistent and dogged volunteers in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with many congregations still returning to help in the ongoing recovery. Restoring our coastal wetlands is a critical step in helping protect the work that has been done over the past seven years."

That's the big intent of the legislation—restoring the ecosystems and economies of the Gulf region and helping both become more resilient in the face of future challenges.

The coastal wetlands, cypress swamps, and barrier islands of the Mississippi River delta are some of the most fertile, nourishing, and important examples of God’s creation in North America, providing as much as 24 percent of the nation’s fisheries harvest from the lower 48 states and critical habitat to much of the nation’s wintering waterfowl and migrating neotropical songbirds.  

But these wetlands are in crisis. They lose a football field every hour adding 16 square miles of open water every year because of our efforts to tame the Mississippi River for shipping and flood protection, and because of our thoughtless exploitation for oil and gas, and exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The BP oil drilling disaster further jeopardized these wetlands, their bounty, and all who rely upon them. Shrimp harvests have decreased and dolphins, minnows, red snapper, shrimp, crabs, and other species are still showing the signs of toxic exposure to BP’s oil.

The state of Louisiana recently passed into law a $50 billion dollar plan to restore the coastal wetlands of the Mississippi River delta while increasing storm protection measures for coastal communities, and will direct their significant share of BP fines towards jumpstarting this 50-year plan.  

With 40 percent of the lower 48's coastal wetlands, and 80 percent of the coastal wetlands loss, the nation is intrinsically tied to Louisiana's wetlands crisis and must be a full partner in the effort to secure and sustain the Mississippi River delta system. It will take large-scale projects to reintroduce the sediment and fresh water of the river into the marshlands that the Mississippi once built. In the face of sea-level rise and stronger storms, this wetlands restoration is critical to the future of our coastal communities. Computer models and the real world example of the less-engineered Atchafalaya River to the west of the Mississippi's main channel show that the river can and will build land if allowed too. It is a hopeful story.  

It is great news because these wetlands, swamps, and barrier islands add up to very real storm protection for our region, with research showing that every 1.5 miles of intact coastal wetlands are able to diminish a storm surge by 1 foot. Growing our coastal wetlands makes our community defenses far more robust and resilient.

The RESTORE Act is not the final step necessary, however. We need continuing leadership to make sure the vision of this legislation is enacted. The legislation directs BP's eventual Clean Water Act fines to the Gulf, but there is a wide range of possible fines. We've got to keep the pressure on the federal government prosecuting the responsible parties so that BP pays the maximum penalty under the law. 

We also need to ensure effective restoration on the ground. As the dollars start to flow, it will be incumbent upon Gulf Coast states to make sound decisions about restoration spending. We'll be watchdogging the process to make sure the money is well spent, and that local communities see the economic benefit of the creation of a 'restoration economy.' Coastal communities that have been hard-hit by poverty through the years need to be at the forefront of jobs training and local hire efforts.  

A restoration economy for the Gulf will mean real jobs where there is real need. Local commercial fishermen have already been hard-hit by increasing fuel costs, low dock-side prices for shrimp due to foreign imports, and now, the BP disaster. Restoring our coast can create more than 30 jobs for each million dollars invested. That’s more than twice as many jobs as the oil and gas and road construction industries combined.

There are downsides to action though. This will affect the coastal communities who live in the path of some of these river diversions, as well as the shipping interests that are currently driving the management of the river.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has acknowledged their priorities must grow as well, as they have a history of managing the river exclusively for flood control and navigation, and must now add in ecosystem restoration.

There are significant challenges and changes ahead for us in the Gulf coast, but we're incredibly grateful and relieved that Congress and the White House saw the wisdom in helping give us the tools to repair our fractured ecosystem.

“In wisdom you made them all, the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small … When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the earth” (Psalms 104:25,30)

I pray we have the wisdom to recreate and to sustain what He has given us.

Aaron Viles is the Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network, the only environmental advocacy group with an exclusive focus on the health of the Gulf of Mexico.  He is also a member of Rayne Memorial UMC’s Caring for Creation Committee.  You can follow him on Twitter at @GulfAaron.

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