GULF OF MEXICO:

Feds should expand damage assessment of BP spill -- report

In order to fully account for damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- and to win a settlement from BP PLC to fix it -- the federal government needs to expand the scope of its damage assessment, the National Research Council said today in a new report.

The government's traditional Natural Resources Damage Assessment, or NRDA, approach overlooks the economic and social impacts caused by the oil spill, the report says.

NRDA, which is required under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, traditionally assesses damage only to natural resources -- for instance, calculating the number of acres destroyed or days when the public wasn't able to access a beach -- and then proposes activities that can be done to restore them, like rehabilitating acres of wetlands or improving beach access. This extensive government study is typically then used to reach a settlement with the party responsible for the spill to fund the restoration work.

The new report, however, urges the government to incorporate an "ecosystem services" approach to the assessment, which would focus not on the natural resources themselves, but on the goods and services that the resources provide to people.

"For a spill that was as large, as complex and particularly as deep as the Deepwater Horizon, this [traditional] approach, which we call an equivalency approach, may not capture the full impact in the spill, particularly in a region like the Gulf of Mexico where so many people's lives and livelihoods are tied so closely to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico," said Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire and chairman of the committee that drafted the new report.

Assessing these broader impacts, however, is no easy feat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is already facing a major challenge in calculating the natural resource damage, because there were critical gaps in data about the state of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem before the spill and as the ecosystem was in a state of constant degradation. Moreover, scientists have no ecosystemwide model of the Gulf to help them understand how different elements interact with one another.

To do what the National Research Council is now proposing would add another layer of complexity to the task by requiring the government to look at how changes in the structure and function of the ecosystem affect the services it provides to humans now and in the future, and then estimate the monetary value of those lost services.

In some cases, the report says, doing so could be simple. Coastal wetlands are well-known to offer protection for nearby communities from storm surges and winds. To calculate the economic value of this protection, one would simply need data about the condition of wetlands and information about the economic value of the land that lies in the storm's path, the report says. Other areas, however, would be much more difficult to calculate.

The deep sea -- areas at a depth of 200 meters or greater -- is the largest but least understood element of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, the report states. Scientists said the deep sea plays a key role in the health of the overall Gulf of Mexico ecosystem by recycling nutrients depleted during photosynthetic activity on the ocean's surface. But because it is so vast and there has been such sparse sampling, the committee found it would be difficult to assign a quantitative value to this portion of the Gulf.

Laying the groundwork for future spills

It remains unclear to what degree the federal government would take the report's advice in its current assessment of the Deepwater Horizon spill, because its work is under tight wraps on the expectation that it will be litigated. But the committee said the approach would be helpful in designing restoration projects funded under a number of umbrellas.

Mayer pointed to an oyster reef project in Alabama's Mobile Bay as an example. The project, funded with early restoration money put up by BP in advance of the NRDA process, was originally going to be located in a portion of the bay convenient for fishermen who lost harvests during the spill. But oysters also play an important role in the ecosystem by filtering water pollution and grounding sediment. When these other factors were taken into consideration, Mayer said, the project leaders were able to choose a location that better tapped all the benefits.

Such an approach also could prove useful in evaluating restoration projects funded through other pots of money related to the Deepwater Horizon spill, such as Clean Water Act fine money sent through the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and projects funded with the $2.5 billion in criminal settlements sent through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for ecosystems work.

"The NRDA process is the standard process, but this approach doesn't have to be limited," said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and a committee member. "There are a lot of restoration plans that could use this approach."

Environmental groups recently have been highlighting the value of natural resources to humans in a bid to build support for the full use of penalty funds for ecosystem restoration as required under legislation passed by Congress last summer. The Environmental Defense Fund yesterday released a report that found the $19 billion annual wildlife tourism industry in the Gulf is highly dependent on a healthy ecosystem and underscored the importance of investing in restoration following the 2010 spill (see related story).

Ultimately, though, much of the committee's work is aimed at laying the groundwork now so that an ecosystems services approach could be used in future spills. The penalty money expected to flow from the spill offers scientists an opportunity to fill some of the critical data gaps and develop a more comprehensive model of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Researchers also will get a firsthand view of the ripple effect that natural resources damages have on economies and communities.

"We are trying to set a framework for a future event," Mayer said.

The National Research Council report was mandated by Congress and sponsored by NOAA, which is leading the government's assessment for the BP spill.