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Hurricane Highlights Need for Better Regulatory Tools

by Kenzie Johnson, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Kenzie-Johnson-Thumbnail-White-Back.jpgThe Gulf Coast just can't seem to catch a break. From the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the region has had its fair share of environmental and natural disasters in recent years. Events this summer have placed the region in the news again--namely Hurricane Isaac, and perhaps less publicized, drought that has threatened fresh water supply in southern Louisiana. On the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Isaac made landfall causing severe flooding in rural areas along the Louisiana coast. In addition, this summer's drought has also caused water levels to drop significantly in the Mississippi River, causing saltwater to work its way up stream threatening some areas' fresh water supply.

These two events have, yet again, brought attention to environmental and natural resource issues in the Gulf Coast, but as Daniel Farber points out, environmental degradation in the Gulf-Coast region is not a new phenomenon. In an article published in MJLST, "The BP Blowout and the Social and Environmental Erosion of the Louisiana Coast," Farber explains that the Gulf Coast has long suffered from disappearing wetlands that are important in reducing storm surges, a large aquatic dead zone that threatens marine life, coastal erosion, and numerous threats to biodiversity. He also discusses the effects climate change will have on the region. Farber argues that improved regulatory tools are needed to restore the region's ecosystems and prepare for challenges the region is likely to face in the future. Farber also calls for increased restoration funding including the direction of Clean Water Act civil penalties towards Gulf Coast restoration.

In June, 2012, Congress passed the RESTORE Act which directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties into a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund. The Act also creates a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council charged with comprehensive planning for restoration of the region and overseeing the use of Trust Fund money. On September 10, 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order terminating the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and moving forward the establishment of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. The order also names the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture as trustees to the Natural Resources Damage Assessment Trustee Council that is charged with assessing natural resource damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, restoring natural resources, and seeking compensation for lost resources.

As can be seen by the recent events, the Gulf Coast region will continue to face natural disasters as well as environmental and natural resource challenges, and the region needs a regulatory system structured to address such events. Recent actions by Congress and President Obama show promise towards long-term restoration, but as Farber points out, the complexities of these issues will take continued action and improvements in regulatory tools to fully restore the region.