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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force Meeting in Pensacola, Florida, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you and welcome to the first meeting of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Task Force. This is the first of many gatherings we will be hosting as we set our restoration efforts in motion. We are joined today by many members of the Task Force, and our new Executive Director. But we are still organizing and filling this effort out and so we do not yet have a couple of members “officially named” yet. However, we thought that it was extremely important to move forward today with our first meeting. Because, as you will note from the agenda, a substantial portion of this first meeting is to hear from you and get your input on how we should organize.

We will be holding them throughout the region to ensure that every voice is heard. Like the immediate response to the spill, this is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Anyone and everyone who can help in this effort must have a chance to do so. That is what this Task Force is meant to facilitate. Let me say at the outset: if there is something you think has been overlooked, or if you have something to offer that was not mentioned during the course of this meeting, I ask you to please bring your ideas to us.

If you look around, you can see the many, many people who are dedicated to this effort. All of you have a part in this effort. It is only together that we are successful. Our sum is much greater than our parts. And this Task Force is here to help integrate those parts into a whole, collaborative, unifying effort.

In recognition of all that has happened, but more importantly, all that is yet left undone, the President has charged me with leading this Task Force of federal and state officials, who will now begin a transition from coastal response to coastal recovery. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force will start now to cut through red tape and align government efforts to deliver projects that address the long decline of our coast. State and local governments, the private sector, tribes, our scientists, and our citizens have great plans. We want to help shape these plans into a comprehensive and coordinated mobilization.

This Task Force will be the body to develop that fully integrated plan – one that reaches across artificial barriers and addresses the needs of the entire region building on existing efforts and fully integrating public and private sectors. This Task Force will build upon all of the great work that has gone before and will work with all efforts. As mentioned, we want to help these existing efforts to move forward to implementation and results and will work to facilitate collaboration among the many organizations and efforts.

I am grateful to the President and the people of the Gulf for the chance to serve the region I call home. This opportunity is something very special for me – combining my life's passion, a healthy environment for our children and grandchildren, with the opportunity to give something back to the region that shaped and nurtured me. As someone who grew up on the Gulf Coast, I know that the challenges facing this ecosystem go back much further than the BP spill. We are here to respond to that single devastating event. However, a full restoration will not be possible unless we address the environmental problems that have plagued this region for many years.

Let me just talk about a few of those today. First, let’s talk about what is at stake here.

The economies of the five Gulf States supported more than 19 million jobs and nearly $2.5 trillion of the U.S. GDP in 2008. Thirty six percent of the region’s employment is in coastal communities, with an even greater percentage in some states, like Louisiana, where 80 percent of the jobs reported are along the coast.

The Gulf Coast is homes to millions of people. And in the years ahead, that population is going to continue to grow. The coastal population of the five states of the Gulf of Mexico is projected by the Census Bureau to increase from a total of 44.2 million in 1995 to an estimated 61.4 million in 2025, nearly a 40 percent increase.

In addition, millions of people visit the Gulf Coast each year – to vacation, to sail, to swim, to fish, and to enjoy this great waterbody. In 2008, national and international tourists spent about $145 billion in the 5 coastal states and approximately 1.7 million people were employed in travel and tourism.

Here you can see the increased density we’re projecting in 2050 and 2100. Texas and Florida are the most rapidly growing states. A business as usual approach cannot be sustained. It’s critical we find development strategies that balance this growth with environmental efforts. We must preserve our resources and ensure that these communities are resilient and adapting to these challenges. As we have seen all too clearly with the hurricanes of 2005 and 2006, these coastal communities are vulnerable. And we need to help them become more resilient. Restoration of barrier islands, marshes and wetlands are one tool.

The industries that call the Gulf home are also vulnerable. Seven of the top ten busiest ports in our country are along the Gulf Coast – and 65 percent of the US’s maritime trade passes through these Gulf ports. This system is a national economic driver – and essential to the country. The needs of the maritime industry are substantial and the role in this effort significant. In fact, if you added up the output from Gulf trading it would make up the 6th largest economy in the world. As has been so correctly noted often, this is a working coast. And it is critical to the nation.

The same is true of the energy, chemical and oil and gas industries. These industries are part of the economic fabric of this region and this nation. Offshore oil and gas operations in the Gulf produce a quarter of the U.S. domestic natural gas and one-eighth of its oil. In addition, the offshore petroleum industry employs more than 55,000 U.S. workers in the Gulf. However, the degradation and impact to the coastline affects these industries – exposing critical infrastructure, threatening facilities, and, most importantly, impacting the lives and livelihoods of the people who work in these industries. You can see here the concentration of hazardous liquid and gas transmission pipelines. Currently, the Gulf plays host to the world’s largest network of subsea infrastructure. Not just the nation – but the world. Many of these pipelines run right through former wetlands, which have been cut away to accommodate them. Balancing the needs of these industries with the rebalancing and rebuilding of the wetlands and coastal communities is difficult but can be done if we all work together.

Now, alongside these industries, there is the multi-billion dollar fishing industry that depends on a healthy ecosystem. Gulf fisheries are some of the most productive in the world. In 2008 the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated the commercial fish and shellfish harvest from the five U.S. Gulf states to be 1.3 billion pounds valued at $661 million. The area produces millions of pounds of shrimp, oysters and crab every year. The Gulf serves as critical habitat for many species and supports and abundance of resources. For example, the Gulf of Mexico is the only spawning ground of the critically depleted western Atlantic population of the blue fin tuna. The Gulf also contains four of the top seven fishing ports in the nation by weight – eight of the top twenty fishing ports by dollar value. You’ll also note the recreational fishing number there – which helps fuel the billions of tourism dollars that keep this region’s economy humming.

One of the most pressing environmental challenges on the Gulf Coast is wetlands loss. As you can see, the area holds 30 percent of the Nation’s coastal marsh, about three million acres. This marshland serves as critical habitat for millions of birds. Louisiana’s wetlands alone provide wintering ground for 70 percent of the nation’s migratory waterfowl. We also have 90 percent of the continental US coastal marsh loss.

Every 38 minutes, a football field sized parcel of land turns to open water. This land loss makes communities, infrastructure, ports and other resources vulnerable. And this destruction is further unbalancing our resources, taking away critical nurseries and habitats.

Louisiana has lost an average of 34 miles of land per year for the last half century. The region is also averaging estuarine emergent loss of more than 5,500 acres a year.

Now, at the same time we are losing the necessary resources to filter pollution and maintain the balance of the ecosystem, we are seeing rapid increases in nutrient pollution. In the past half-century nutrient build-ups along the coast have led to increased dissolved oxygen levels – which are dangerous to marine life. A series of regional workshops sponsored by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance identified dissolved oxygen stress as a key indicator of the ecological effects of excess nutrients in coastal waters and estuaries. The intensification and expansion of the northern Gulf hypoxic zone – or dead zone – over recent decades have been related to increases in nitrate loading, and scientific consensuses support the conclusion that the worsening hypoxia in this region is linked to eutrophication.

This area in the northern Gulf of Mexico over the Louisiana and Texas continental shelf is the largest hypoxic zone in the United States, and the second largest for the world's coastal ocean.

Finally, we should also take this chance to consider the area’s vulnerabilities to the changing climate and sea-level rise. Here is an example of the effects sea-level rise could have on ports and highways which make up the economic infrastructure of the area. Here is a national map of the most vulnerable areas with regard to sea-level rise. And if we compare that to the projected population map in 2050 and 2100. This is a serious hazard to a place where millions of people may someday live and work.

So these are just some of the short- and long-term challenges we have to face as we move towards restoration of the Gulf and protection of the Gulf Coast. The people of the Gulf know that a strong and vibrant ecosystem is the key to the future. A strong and healthy system supports the economy, the culture and the lives of the people. It will protect and support all of the industries and interests that we have discussed here.

The long-term plan for the Gulf must bring the system back into balance. The needs of the people, the environment, and the economy are linked and symbiotic. A system in balance will support the people, the communities, the environment and the economy. Multiple lines of defense from flooding, land loss, hurricanes and climate change are necessary and adaptive techniques must be used in establishing them.

Let me close by saying: during the BP spill, we essentially “lost” the Gulf for a period of several weeks. We lost the use of valuable fishing grounds and almost had to do without shrimp and oyster po’boys. We lost months of tourism dollars that your communities count on. And we lost the intangible things – the benefits of having a thriving, vibrant ecosystem as part of our community. From that, we learned just how difficult and costly it was to do without those things for a few months. That was a small price compared to what will happen if we lose the Gulf for good. With the BP spill and these growing challenges, that is the path we are heading down now. This Task Force is a chance for us to change directions on that path. It’s an opportunity to restore this ecosystem and reap all the benefits that comes with it. It is an opportunity for us to work together – to join together – and harness all of the work, and thinking, and studying that has been done to really work to address these challenges.

I look forward to working with you all in this effort. This is our home and our country. The President has heard you and stands with you – as do I and all of these other folks who have been blessed enough to call this home. Thank you very much.