Six years after BP Oil Spill, $20 billion settlement presents once in a lifetime opportunity to the Gulf Coast

Fisherfolk along the Gulf Coast report that they still see signs of damage from the oil spill, which started in April 2010 and went on for months. Hauls of oysters, shrimps, and various kinds of fish have never fully rebounded. Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

Now that the dust has settled on the legal case, the Gulf Coast states will have billions to invest. Oxfam and partners are working to ensure the money goes into building new resiliency for hardest hit communities.

Almost exactly six years ago, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig kicked off the longest, largest, and most devastating oil spill in US history. It took the lives of 11 workers, spewed millions of gallons of oil into vital coastal waters, and caused profound and still untold damage to the ecosystems along the Gulf Coast.

On April 4, after years of wrangling, the legal chapter finally closed. US District Court Judge Carl Barbier granted approval to a settlement between BP and the US government and the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas; the final total is $20 billion.

This settlement marks the largest environmental fine ever levied on a corporation. While it is difficult to put a value on the real damage to families, communities, wildlife, and environmental resources, this settlement marks a significant step on the road to recovery. Thanks to tireless advocacy by coastal communities, Oxfam America, and allies, these funds will not end up in general coffers; instead, the money will largely be invested directly in those areas most impacted by this tragedy. Indeed, this is the start of the largest environmental restoration effort in the history of the United States.

Over the course of 16 years, BP will pay at least $12.8 billion for Clean Water Act Fines and natural resource damages. This comes on top of the $5 billion the company paid as part of an early restoration agreement and criminal settlement, and $1.4 billion paid by its primary partner, Transocean.

These resources are coming at a vital moment, for a region still reeling in the wake of a series of disasters--from Hurricane Katrina to the oil spill—and historically suffering some of the country’s highest rates of economic inequality and poverty. These dynamics have combined to create enormous barriers to resiliency and economic opportunity, particularly for people of color, low-wage workers, and families in vulnerable communities along the coast.

After the spill, Oxfam and allies rallied thousands of people to lobby for the RESTORE Act, a federal law which ensures that the majority of the settlement will head directly to the Gulf Coast, restoring coastal habitat and creating new economic opportunities. The bill included innovative policies to invest in training and hiring local workers, as well as restoring highly productive coastal ecosystems. These policies enable the most vulnerable communities to face the array of social, economic, and environmental challenges.

With settlement resources in hand, federal and state agencies along the Gulf have a responsibility to make the most of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Oxfam has joined with others in calling for decision makers to prioritize efforts to benefit the people along the coast in restoration investments.

Oxfam is working with partners in Louisiana and Mississippi to recruit and train new workers in skills that will be in demand in ecosystem restoration projects. Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

We’re already starting to see some progress. Bodies like the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council are investing in projects that help promote the development of the local workforce. Careful ecosystem restoration presents an enormous opportunity to benefit more than the environment; it can restore the economic, social, and cultural health of the communities that rely on natural resources.

Some of those billions need to go to smart investments to restore the Gulf’s oyster beds, wetlands, barrier islands, rivers, and coastal habitat; but we also have a chance to create pathways for disadvantaged and unemployed workers to gain new skills and build new careers in this booming new restoration economy.

Currently Oxfam is working with local community development, education, and workforce development agencies like Fletcher Technical Community College, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, Women in Construction, BISCO, and Limitless Vistas Inc to implement a series of innovative pilot projects across Louisiana and Mississippi. These programs recruit and train disadvantaged workers (primarily women and people of color), preparing them to compete for living wage jobs that will be a part of coming restoration projects.

These kinds of partnerships will be critical to help to prepare the next generation of environmental stewards and restoration professionals, while also building new pathways out of poverty across the Gulf Coast.

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