President Obama's vow to restore a ravaged Gulf Coast ecosystem figures to test the limits of a law intended to hold oil companies accountable for environmental restoration.
The scope and structure of the "Gulf Coast Restoration Plan" that Obama proposed in his Oval Office address Tuesday night are still unknown, but senior administration officials say it will go far beyond mopping up crude on beaches and marshes. The plan, they say, will seek to reverse a century's worth of damage caused by oil and gas production, the straitjacketing of the Mississippi River with levee walls, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The cost could be tens of billions of dollars, officials and outside experts say.
The plan will be the focus of a discussion today in the Oval Office, where Obama is scheduled to meet with the man he has tapped to oversee the restoration, Navy secretary and former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus.
Experts say the plan could both resemble and yet dwarf the world's largest environmental restoration project under way: the Everglades project. That plan, which Congress approved in 2000, is now expected to cost $12.5 billion.
Like the Everglades, drained to half their original size and polluted by sprawling suburbs and sugar farms, the Gulf Coast has suffered at the hands of ambitious efforts to tame the landscape.
"The cardinal thing to remember about the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is that they have been suffering from an ecological collapse for the last 90 to 100 years, even before the oil disaster happened," said Paul Harrison, senior director for the Mississippi River and East Coast at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.
The delta once scoured itself with the help of the Mississippi River, which regularly shifted paths, evenly scattering its sediments across marshes that serve as nurseries for marine life and protect against hurricanes. But decades of dredging and dam-building have deepened the river and created a chute that sends sediments off to the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That has starved coastal marshes that are eroding at the rate of a football field every 45 minutes, Harrison said.
Meanwhile, the region has become home to a third of U.S. oil and gas production and 50 percent of its refining capacity.
Administration officials say the work of a federal interagency task force charged with Gulf Coast restoration, which in March released a "Roadmap for Restoring Ecosystem Resiliency and Sustainability," will guide the restoration effort.
A big part of the restoration challenge will be combining under one umbrella the various state and federal efforts already under way along the Gulf Coast, including five federal programs launched between 1990 and 2007.
Probing limits of oil-spill law
Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, a council of trustees is charged with carrying out a natural resources damage assessment that includes planning the scale of restoration.
The incident command system, headed by the Coast Guard, and the trustee council, comprising state, federal and tribal officials, are charged with making claims of the responsible company, in this case BP PLC, whose damaged well is spewing oil into the Gulf.
But just how much can be claimed for longer-term restoration, given the little-understood scope and extent of the ongoing oil spill and the decades of abuse to the Gulf Coast, remain a key question, according to one senior administration official.
"Recently, the question's been asked, are these two systems adequate to deal with everything that we need to be doing?" said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions.
"Some of the internal questions that the administration or executive branch is asking itself are: Are we lifting every stone? Have we thought about everything we could or should be doing to respond and to recover and to restore?"
Some discussions have centered on creating a new federal agency or corporation, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, although this official said planners "winced" at the proposal of creating a new bureaucracy and discarded the idea.
A task force may be the solution, similar to the one that oversees the Everglades restoration effort, a project whose costs are split 50-50 between the state and federal government and that is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, an existing state agency.
"In order to take those moneys and spend them in a more holistic way, it may take some legislation and certainly the formation of an interagency, Everglades-restoration-like coordinated team," said Lynn Scarlett, a former deputy secretary of the Interior.
Scarlett could not speculate on an exact dollar figure that would be asked of BP but noted that the Exxon Valdez spill settlement would be $14 billion in today's dollars.
"There's no serious number at this point. The only thing that can be said at this point is that it likely will be very big," she said. "This is clearly larger than Exxon Valdez. Several times larger, and it's not even over."