Gulf Restoration Plan Takes Big Step Forward

They've got the plan.

They've got federal reassurance.

Now all they need is the money.

That where sportsmen's conservation groups and their allies in the green world stood this week after the U.S. Dept. of Commerce released its much anticipated "Path Forward" for the RESTORE Act - the bill that will allow 80 percent of what is expected to be more than $20 billion in Clean Water Act fines from the Deepwater Horizon spill to be used for restoration of Gulf ecosystems and economies. Normally CWA fines go straight to the federal larder.

The Path Forward lays out how the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council will follow the formula for dispersing the funds laid out in the law.

The happiness expressed by many conservation groups underscored a hidden anxiety many have held since the bill's enactment. While such a huge triumph for conservation would be rare in any times, the idea that this was one of the few bills to make it through a historically divided congress with bipartisan support left some supporters wondering if trap doors were not waiting down the road. Specifically, conservationists were concerned that the carefully negotiated spending formula that directs most of the funding to ecosystem restoration rather than a slush fund for tourist development could be hijacked by business lobbyists.

And, in fact, a behind-the-scenes political drama in the days before the announcement seemed to lend credence to those concerns, when conservation groups thought the Council might be trying to move some funding from ecosystem restoration.

But he Path Forward has put the Council, and the administration, on record that it would follow the disbursement formula stated in the law:

- 35 percent equally divided among the five states for ecological restoration, economic development, and tourism promotion;
- 30 percent plus interest managed by the Council for ecosystem restoration under the Comprehensive Plan;
- 30 percent divided among the States according to a formula to implement State expenditure plans, which require approval of the Council;
- 2.5 percent plus interest for the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring and Technology Program within the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and
- 2.5 percent plus interest allocated to the States for Centers of Excellence Research grants, which will each focus on science, technology, and monitoring related to Gulf restoration.
So now conservationists have the plan for the Gulf, and reassurance from the administration it will follow the law.

Now all they need is a final settlement of the case against oil giant BP - and that $20 billion.