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Remarks at Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council Meeting, Mobile, Alabama

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks at Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council Meeting in Mobile, Alabama 

Thank you, Governor Bentley, and thank you for hosting our first Council meeting.

I want to recognize all of the federal and state officials here on the Council today, as well as the staff representing several Members of Congress. And, of course, it’s great to see leaders from this community and region here today. Thanks to everyone for joining us.

The Commerce Department is honored to have been selected by the Gulf Coast States to serve as Chair of this Council. All of us on this stage take this responsibility very seriously.  

Clearly, today is a new milestone in our efforts to restore and strengthen the Gulf Coast.

It’s important for us to start by acknowledging just how important the Gulf is to our nation and our economy. Its waters and coasts are home to one of the most diverse environments of life in the world–including over 15,000 species of sea life. 22 million Americans live in its coastline counties–working in crucial U.S. industries like commercial seafood. It is home to 10 of America’s 15 largest ports–where nearly half-a-trillion dollars in two-way trade took place in the first nine months of this year alone. I could keep going, but I hope I’ve communicated the importance of this region.

I should also note that challenges existed in the Gulf region before the spill even happened. So the federal government and Gulf States were already working together to address eroding shorelines, lost habitats, development issues, and more.

And then, as you all know, on April 20, 2010, an offshore drilling explosion and fire killed 11 people and injured 17 others. It set off a major oil spill with millions of barrels of crude entering the Gulf–the worst environmental disaster in recent memory. The spill caused serious damage to our ecosystems and put tremendous strain on businesses and this region’s economy.

The administration responded immediately with a major government-wide mobilization. Experts at the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration–NOAA–began tracking the oil’s spread and providing specialized forecasts. Booms were deployed through the close coordination of the Coast Guard as well as the departments of Defense and Interior. And the EPA began collecting water samples to monitor public health and environmental concerns.

In addition, the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration sent 21 teams to evaluate the impact on infrastructure and industries. The SBA began providing loans for businesses that saw a drop in sales. The Department of Labor started provided retraining and reemployment assistance for displaced workers. Commerce’s International Trade Administration helped with initial plans to bring back tourism.

I’m sure that my fellow federal government colleagues on this Council could list many more examples. Clearly, the administration’s commitment to the Gulf extended far beyond simply capping the well, as President Obama has said many times. And today we renew our partnership with state and local governments because the work is not complete.

Today, our collective focus is on how to ensure the long-term health, prosperity and resilience of the vital Gulf region. I’m confident that we can do that in a way that restores our environment, reinvigorates local economies, and creates jobs in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and here in Alabama.

The RESTORE Act dedicates 80 percent of the total civil and administrative penalties paid in connection with the oil spill to Gulf Coast restoration.  

Let me be clear. That money will be coming back here, to this region, to benefit the people who live and work here.

Once money is deposited into the Trust Fund, it will be used in five ways.

35 percent of the funds will be divided evenly among the five Gulf Coast states for ecological and economic restoration.

30 percent will be disbursed to this Council to develop and implement a Comprehensive Plan focused on restoration projects to benefit Coastal communities.

30 percent will be dedicated to the Gulf Coast states for projects based on impacts from the oil spill.

2.5 percent is dedicated to creating what’s called the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Observation, Monitoring and Technology Program within NOAA.

And the remaining 2.5 percent is dedicated to Centers of Excellence in each state that will provide research grants for science, technology, and monitoring related to Gulf restoration.

What we don’t know yet–because litigation is still pending–is how much money will be in the fund or when it will be become available. In the meantime, however, the Council has important deadlines to meet. So we are moving forward.

Due to the leadership of Administrator Jackson and the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, we have a strong foundation on which to build.

The Task Force did an excellent job in coordinating with community leaders and stakeholders from across the Gulf to address the immediate concerns, while also establishing overarching goals and a framework for restoration.

Clearly, the Strategy they developed will be invaluable as we move forward. In fact, can everyone join me in thanking Administrator Jackson and EPA? 

Looking forward, this Council will use the expected funds for coastal restoration, economic development, and travel and tourism. We will be working closely with the people in coastal communities to identify projects and programs that will accomplish these goals.

And all of us here know that the Comprehensive Plan that we will develop must take an integrated approach, recognizing that coastal and ecosystem restoration is inextricably linked to economic growth and development.  So we must have a broad understanding of everything from the effects of coastal erosion on the Gulf to the unique cultures and communities that exist along its 1,600 miles of shoreline.

Overall, the goal of this Council is simple: to use the money ultimately provided to help get the Gulf Coast back on its feet–stronger, healthier, more economically resilient, and more vibrant than ever.

My commitment is that the six federal agencies on this Council and this administration as a whole will continue to be fully engaged.

And, importantly, we will work closely with our partners who share the Council’s vision for restoration and sustainability. This includes the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. And we know we don’t have all the answers in Washington.

President Obama has made it clear that he wants the plans to come from the Gulf to Washington, not the other way around.

That’s why the five states are key members of this Council and their voices will help lead this process. That’s also why we are holding our first meeting here today– with representatives from localities, agencies, nonprofits, and others from the Gulf Coast who can help begin this important work.

Furthermore, we will be visible in the region as this process moves forward.  For example, I’m pleased to say that early next year we will be holding several public meetings and listening sessions in each of the five Gulf States.

Later this afternoon, we’ll have the opportunity to hear from some of you. I hope that you took advantage of the “comment booth” during the Open House this morning. If not, I hope that you’ll consider offering a comment during the second Open House session following this meeting.

Simply put, we need your ideas and your energy to ensure that this Council develops plans that will have the best possible impact on the Gulf region.  

Clearly, all of us here believe that the Gulf Coast is a national treasure.

People from across the country and around the world travel to see everything it has to offer.  And it is the basis for the lives and livelihoods of thousands of hardworking Americans.

Thank you again for being here today, for your commitment, and for your passion. I look forward to our discussion and to working with everyone here in the months and years to come.

With that, I will turn to comments from Administrator Jackson. Thank you.