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The Seas Are Rising and So Are Community Voices: Climate Justice in Gulf of Mexico Restoration

Thursday, July 7, 2016

David Roche

Staff Attorney

Climate change and sea-level rise are reshaping the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. Land is being lost at an alarming rate, especially in Louisiana, where subsidence is compounding the effects of sea-level rise. Across the Gulf Coast, communities are increasingly vulnerable as the seas rise, land subsides, saltwater intrudes, and marshes retreat. In the face of such monumental change, it is essential for communities to plan and adapt.

The Gulf of Mexico, from Biloxi, MS. Credit: David RocheAnother major challenge for the Gulf of Mexico region is how to achieve restoration in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Following the oil spill, multiple processes were established to address restoration and recovery from environmental disaster. Through three of these processes—the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the RESTORE Act, and the National Fish and Wildlife Fund’s (NFWF’s) grant programs—$16.7 billion will be available to fund restoration projects. Just over $1 billion worth of projects have been approved. The billions remaining will be spent in the coming decades based on local, state, and regional plans to support restoration of the Gulf Coast. All plans have baseline requirements involving transparency, accountability, and public participation, and these avenues of engagement have already had massive positive impacts on the types of projects that get funded.

First, let’s take a step back and take a brief look at those baseline requirements for each of the major processes.


$8.8 billion in NRDA funds will be allocated to projects through restoration plans, which are drafted periodically by government agency trustees at the state and regional level. Restoration plans include environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, and other laws when applicable. Prior to restoration plans being released, the Trustees hold periodic public meetings, and they have submission portals for projects online. After plans are drafted, they are open for public review and comment.


Because it is not a government agency, the $2.5 billion in NFWF funding does not come with statutory or regulatory planning/participation requirements, including under NEPA. However, an April 2015 webinar on Climate Change and Gulf Restoration included a presentation from NFWF’s Senior Manager for Coastal Habitat Restoration, who explained that the program requires the integration of climate change and environmental justice impacts into restoration projects.


The $5.3 billion of RESTORE Act funding flows through five separate funding “pots,” each of which have their own participation requirements. In general, states and local governments receiving funds often solicit comments on approaches in public meetings and online. In addition, each plan is required to be open for comment prior to being finalized.

Climate Justice and Public Participation

Like many important governance principles, climate justice and public participation are easy values to talk about generally or even include in statutory checklists, but hard concepts to implement in specific management decisions. The three main processes of Gulf restoration provide an unprecedented opportunity to pursue the hard actions that actualize the easy ideals.

In a forthcoming book chapter, I analyze how public participation through these processes has furthered climate justice and coastal resilience. The chapter discusses the progress achieved by citizens, NGOs, and government agencies that together view restoration as a shared, non-partisan opportunity, rather than an adversarial battle. One particularly salient example of climate justice in action is worth highlighting here.

Engagement in Action

Under NRDA, funds can be used to restore resources harmed by the spill or loss of use of resources due to the spill. That first prong leads to many of the projects associated with coastal resilience, like barrier island restoration or living shorelines. The second prong, also called “lost recreational use” projects, can be used for a variety of economic purposes, like boat ramps or park facilities. In 2014, the NRDA Trustees proposed an $85 million lost recreational use project to construct a convention center in Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Outrage ensued.

At the heart of the outrage was a concern that the convention center stretched the intent of the Oil Pollution Act’s “loss of use” provision. The Gulf Restoration Network (a nonprofit based in Louisiana) filed a lawsuit contending that the project violated both the Oil Pollution Act and NEPA. In 2016, the court ruled that the project could not proceed without further environmental review, effectively scrapping the project for now.

While the convention center is just one battle about the use of less than 1% of total NRDA funds, it could play a monumental role in Gulf restoration. A cacophony of voices from citizens, NGOs, and government spoke out about the use of funds (and the interpretation of NRDA it embodied). The NRDA Trustees have done an admirable job with a massive task, and they seem to have heard those voices.

Prior to the convention center lawsuit and outrage, 33.7% of funds went to lost recreational use projects. Afterward, just 5.6% of allocated funds were used for the same purpose. And most significantly, for the remaining $7.9 billion to flow through the NRDA process, less than 2% will go to such projects.

While it is impossible to trace a line from public engagement to substantive change in most instances, it is safe to say that public participation made a difference. The NRDA Trustees were practicing good governance by actively listening, and Gulf restoration will likely include billions more dollars dedicated to coastal resilience because of it.


Climate justice does not necessarily require a specific outcome for coastal communities. But it does require that those communities are given a meaningful voice in governance processes. Gulf restoration could provide a compelling case study in how to pursue equity in the face of climate change. And in the process, it could provide a template for giving coastal communities across the United States a more prominent voice in decisions that affect them.


Note: Parts of this blog were excerpted from a book chapter by the author in Climate Justice: Case Studies in Global and Regional Governance Challenges (Randall Abate ed., ELI Press forthcoming 2016).

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