Jackson must seize opportunity to invest in restoring the Gulf

A federal judge in New Orleans will soon rule on how much oil company BP must pay in Clean Water Act fines for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fine will likely rank among the largest civil fines in U.S. history, and it comes on top of a record-setting criminal fine and several other penalties and settlements.

Typically, BP’s fine would go to a trust fund in Washington. But under the terms of the RESTORE Act, a 2012 law co-sponsored by both of Mississippi’s senators and passed with bipartisan support, 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines will go to the states to make investments in their economies and natural environments.

The RESTORE Act devolves a great deal of power from Washington to Jackson — and with it a great deal of responsibility. As a result, Mississippi holds in its hands the future of its coastal economy and environment in a very real way.

And make no mistake, the environment and economy of Mississippi’s coast go hand-in-hand. Across the coast, approximately one in five jobs are tied directly to tourism, an industry that relies on clean beaches and healthy ecosystems. Indeed, wildlife and nature tourism in the state is a $2.7-billion-a-year industry in the state. And the commercial seafood industry generates almost $300 million annually in sales.

To ensure that RESTORE Act funds do the most possible good for Mississippi’s coastal economy and natural environment, money must be spent effectively and efficiently. This means that the state should identify and fund only projects with high returns on investment and with low ongoing upkeep costs.

This means first and foremost that funds should be invested in ways that widely benefit the communities that were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill. In practice, this means prioritizing projects like wetland and barrier island preservation, which strengthen ecosystems and reduces storm surge and hurricane damage, and restoring fishing and wildlife habitats that are vital to the recreational and commercial fishing industries.

These kinds of projects can significantly reduce the costs of future natural disasters like hurricanes. And indeed, projects that reduce risks from flooding can be among the most valuable for homeowners.

To ensure that funds are allocated and spent wisely, it is imperative that Mississippi makes the process as transparent as possible. This will allow the media, government watchdogs and the general public to analyze how money is being spent before it goes out the door.

Mississippi has already taken one strong step towards transparency through the restore.ms web site, which invites Mississippians to suggest coastal projects. The state should seek to build out the site further, making it a central repository for information about potential projects that keeps citizens up to date as the process unfolds.

Mississippi may also wish to take a page from Louisiana’s book and create a long-term coastal plan that outlines what coastal restoration projects the state would like to fund over the next generation. January’s report by the GoCoast 2020 commission is a step in the right direction, but a more in-depth plan would prioritize projects across the three coastal counties and consider the ways that different projects interact.

The RESTORE Act presents policymakers in Jackson and across the Gulf Coast with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make sound investments in the environment and economy of the coast. But this will require a commitment to finding and funding the best programs — and doing it in a fully transparent manner.

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