Gulf Oil Spill Natural Resource Damage Assessment Provides Restoration Opportunities

By Whit Remer, Environmental Defense Fund

Policymakers, scientists, and environmental advocates gathered earlier this month in Baltimore, Md. to explore the long-term impacts that oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon may have on natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico. The symposium titled, “NRDA for the Gulf: Improving Our Ability to Quantify Chronic Damages,” highlighted both the challenges and opportunities of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). NRDA is the scientific and legal process used by the government to restore natural resources following an oil spill. Perhaps the most encouraging take-away from the conference is that NRDA can serve as a catalyst for the long-term and large-scale ecosystem restoration desperately needed in the Gulf.

One of the primary purposes of NRDA is to restore natural resources and services to the condition they would be in if the injury—in this case, the Gulf oil spill—had not occurred. It is the job of the NRDA Trustees to guide the process of injury assessment and resource restoration (click here for more information about the NRDA Trustees and their responsibilities). The Trustees must use this disastrous oil spill as an opportunity to make the Gulf healthier and more resilient than the Gulf we knew before the Deepwater Horizon spill.

One opportunity that emerged from the symposium is the need to provide better science, research, and monitoring of the Gulf’s natural resources. This opportunity can help address scientific shortfalls, such as one identified by Oceana Senior Scientist Jacqueline Savitz: The lack of historic baseline data available in the Gulf prior to the BP oil spill.

EDF Coastal Scientist Angelina Freeman examines oil on a beach in Louisiana (2010). Credit: Yuki Kokubo,

NRDA is designed to return natural resources to their pre-injury state, but it’s difficult to do that, Savitz argues, without well-described historic baseline data. This data provides Trustees with the mark they must reach for restoring resources. Without a good baseline upon which to judge restoration efforts, the Trustees (and the public) are stuck using somewhat arbitrary benchmarks for measuring success, demonstrating the need for keeping a comprehensive inventory of natural resources. Moving forward, NRDA will provide scientists and policymakers with important data for the Gulf.

The second opportunity NRDA presents is jumpstarting long-term and large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts in the Gulf. The Trustees have the unique opportunity to fund projects that not only return resources to their pre-oiled state, but also begin long-term restoration activities that move the Gulf towards a healthier and self-sustaining ecosystem. This task is complicated by the fact the Gulf already was in decline decades before the spill. Years of mismanagement of the Mississippi River, oil and gas industry presence, and strain on natural resources has put the Gulf on the edge of collapse. Thankfully the Trustees can use NRDA—and the projects funded under it—as the starting point for reversing this decline.

Trustees for the Gulf certainly have a long and difficult road ahead.  However, NRDA provides the legal framework to improve our scientific capacity and restoration efforts throughout the Gulf.  While the Deepwater Horizon is still considered the nation’s worst environmental disaster, the Trustees must find opportunities to capitalize on advancing long-term and large-scale ecosystem restoration in the Gulf.