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The Long Road to Recovery After a 100-Year Oil Spill

August 22, 2018

As seen in the Penn Law Journal

By Justin Ehrenwerth L’09

On the evening of April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon located about 50 miles off Louisiana’s coast. The resulting fire and eventual sinking of the rig caused the death of 11 crew members and launched the largest oil spill in American history.

For 87 days, the companies involved, the federal government, and private organizations worked to seal a well that would eventually release an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a devastating blow to the Gulf’s ecosystem and economy which are intrinsically connected. The Gulf’s fisheries contribute 18 percent of the nation’s seafood landings; millions of people recreate in our wetlands and on our beaches; and our “working coast” produces much of the energy that fuels our national economy.

For many, this event wasn’t a stand-alone tragedy. Rather, the oil spill was yet another challenge in a string of disasters facing our coastal communities. People and companies who rebuilt after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008 were just getting back on their feet. Following Deepwater Horizon, coastal communities suffered as wetlands and beaches were oiled, fisheries were put on hold, oil and gas moratoriums were put in place, and tourism and retail dried up as people stayed away from the coast.

All of these acute disasters are underlined by another, slower moving disaster in Louisiana. Between 1932 and 2010, Louisiana lost more than 1,800 square miles of coastal land through sea level rise, subsidence (the gradual sinking of an area of land), canals cut by the oil and gas industry, and the unintended consequences of an engineered environment along the Mississippi River. River levees, while necessary for flood control and navigation, starve the wetlands of needed sediment while at the same time natural and man-made processes continue to eat away at the once lush landscape.

Although Louisiana has a widely respected, science-based 50-year plan to address coastal
restoration and protection challenges, all
acknowledge that the plan won’t stop the state from getting smaller and exposing more people
to risk. Hard choices need to be made and thoughtful adaptation is a must.

Talk of coastal resiliency really took off after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the Deepwater Horizon disaster highlighted that sustainability can’t just be a matter of building better levees or wetland restoration projects. Instead, the oil spill highlighted the urgent need for the development of better resilience and sustainability tools that take into account not only better flood protection, but also the needs of people and economies within our coastal zones.

A number of organizations, foundations, universities, and individuals have been working hard to build upon the growing resilience portfolio Louisiana has developed through generations of living with water. However, much of the work has been in planning, non-applicable research, or in pilot projects that focus on one community but do little for the resiliency of the coast as a whole.

The $20 billion in civil, criminal and natural resource damage penalties that BP will pay over the next 14 years provide a once in a lifetime opportunity. This represents the largest restoration effort in history.

Deepwater Horizon shaped my professional life. I was privileged to be involved in the immediate spill response, the extensive litigation, and ultimately administering the penalty to restore the Gulf’s ecosystem and economy. Throughout this work, I developed a deep appreciation for world-class science that can be readily applied to pressing challenges and directly improve decision-making. I came to appreciate that the solutions we develop must be based not on politics, but on the best available science with full consideration given to the interplay between environment, economy, and people. It’s been a great joy to work with my former dean, now president of Tulane University, Mike Fitts, on these issues.

As a result of this collaboration, our Institute recently launched a New Orleans-based Resilience Lab in collaboration with Tulane University’s ByWater Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilience Accelerator and Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes.
This partnership will enhance linkages between Louisiana and New York through the sharing solutions and lessons learned in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Superstorm Sandy. Through connections with experts around the world, the Resilience Lab will also provide a vehicle to export the vast knowledge Louisiana gains, and the implementable tools it will develop, to coastal communities everywhere.

Disaster after disaster, hurricane after hurricane, and punch after punch, Louisiana residents have picked themselves up and got themselves ready for the next round. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was no exception, other than this time a settlement will provide billions for restoration activities. The needs facing our coastal communities far surpass this amount, so it is imperative that smart and coordinated investments are made in improving community resilience rather than using the money for “random acts of restoration.”

Justin R. Ehrenwerth is President and CEO of The Water Institute of the Gulf. He most recently served as the inaugural executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and previously as an assistant counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office.