To save Louisiana’s coast, protect our Restore Act funds

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Louisianans received good news this month, in the form of an announcement from the U.S. Department of Treasury that BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines will begin flowing to the Gulf Coast states impacted by the environmental catastrophe.

The money will be distributed pursuant to the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, better known as the Restore Act, which sets aside 80 percent of the civil and administrative fines paid in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The primary purpose of the Restore Act is to channel these fines to mitigation of the impact of the oil spill and increased resilience across the Gulf Coast to future disasters. This is of special significance to Louisiana, which was not only hit hardest by the oil spill but also faces unique environmental challenges that must be addressed.

Fortunately, Louisiana has an opportunity to make good use of these resources by implementing the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s 2012 master plan. The plan was developed using extensive scientific analysis to identify high-performing projects that will protect Louisiana’s communities and ecosystem.

By dedicating Restore Act resources to projects included in the master plan, we can make the best use of the money and minimize fraud and waste. As it happens, Louisiana is the only Gulf state with such a plan in place, giving us the opportunity to lead the way for other states.

One concern with the Restore Act is that its language is broad enough to allow spending on dubious projects in the name of “economic development.” Fortunately, another piece of good news in the Treasury Department announcement was that funds from Pot 2 of the three pots of money would only be used for remediating ecological harm, which is consistent with the act’s intent. This reduces the likelihood of money going to economic boondoggles.

Notwithstanding this good news, there are continuing concerns that Louisiana policymakers will need to address. For one, the incremental nature of the funding makes it difficult to commit to large-scale projects that will be done in phases. The uncertainties of the litigation — how much will be available and when the funds will arrive — all make it difficult to map out a plan of attack.

While the master plan is a valuable document, Restore Act funds will not pay for all of the projects in the plan. Decisions will need to be made about which projects get funded. This could prove challenging, especially considering the possibility that politics will come into play.

Planners and policymakers also will need to ensure money is not wasted on economic projects of questionable value. Protecting our state for the long haul is critical, and so-called “economic development” projects are often less valuable than meets the eye. Any such endeavors should be closely connected to the goal of coastal restoration.

For all of these reasons, the decision-making, budgeting and spending processes should be as transparent as possible. These funds are to be used for the public’s benefit, and transparency is the best way to make sure money is not squandered.

Finally, Louisiana policymakers must make every effort to ensure our state receives its fair share of Restore Act funds.

Louisiana was hardest hit by the Deepwater Horizon spill, but some of the formulas used to distribute funds among the Gulf Coast states could result in other states receiving disproportionately large shares of the money. While each Gulf state suffered damages, policymakers should work to ensure that Louisiana’s recovery is proportionate to its degree of injury.

If our congressional delegation continues to advocate forcefully on our behalf and state and local policymakers act responsibly to make the best use of these resources, we may find our silver lining in this cloud of oil in the form of a more resilient Louisiana.

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