The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council approved a draft plan to restore the Gulf Coast's ecosystem and economy. While the Aug. 28 vote in New Orleans is a step toward selecting and funding construction and other projects to restore the gulf's battered shorelines and economy, it could be at least a year before any new projects break ground, according to the Dept. of Commerce.

Congress established the council under the RESTORE Act, a law enacted in July 2012 that requires 80% of Clean Water Act (CWA) civil penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be used for coast restoration and economic development projects. Under the law, 20% of the money will go toward the existing Oil Liability Trust Fund. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council will allocate about 30% of the remaining 80% of CWA penalties.

The council is made up of gulf-state governors and officials from the Depts. of Agriculture, Army, Commerce, Homeland Security and Interior as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the amount and timing of the funding is still up in the air as a result of the continuing litigation between the U.S. government and BP. At the meeting, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who chairs the council, said that, despite the uncertainty, "we're moving forward." Moreover, the Treasury Dept. has not yet issued its regulation on how projects will be funded, although a draft of that regulation is imminent, Pritzker noted.

According to a Commerce Dept. spokesperson, in the near term, the council will release a schedule for proposals, to be submitted by council members, and develop a proposal solicitation and evaluation process for projects to receive funding. Then, the council will publish for public review and comment a Draft Funded Priorities List, which will identify the projects and programs the council intends to prioritize for funding. Once finalized, the list will serve as the basis for allocating funds under the council's restoration component. The 20-page initial draft of the comprehensive plan, approved by the council on Aug. 28, is short on details but provides a framework for how projects will be selected and funded through the RESTORE Act.

At a meeting held in Washington, D.C., at the National Academy of Sciences on Aug. 29-30, Teresa Christopher, senior adviser for gulf restoration at the Commerce Dept., noted other entities that also are involved in Gulf Coast restoration projects. "There is a lot of money flowing to a lot of different bodies—all have different criteria on how it can be spent," she said.

In New Orleans, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) blasted BP for "spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their public relations campaign … instead [of addressing] Clean Water Act and Natural Resources Damage liabilities now."

But Geoff Morrell, BP spokesman, said, "Suggestions … that BP is dragging its feet with respect to the Clean Water Act and natural-resources damages payments conveniently ignore that the law provides for these amounts to be determined through the judicial and regulatory process—to which BP is subject—not their own political whim. ... BP, to date, has spent more than $26 billion to help restore the gulf."

Some funds may soon be available as a result of Transocean's $1-billion settlement with federal prosecutors, approved in February this year, Christopher said.