Gulf in Peril update: Summit ponders Gulf of Mexico's fate

Three-day meeting in Texas is a 'starting point' for government officials and scientists to focus on issues of public health, the economy and the environment

A rising tide of concern about the future of the Gulf of Mexico is culminating in an unprecedented meeting of scientists, government officials, industry and non-governmental organizations this week in Texas.

Organizers are calling it a summit, a word that conjures images of world leaders hashing out nuclear arms pacts and trade deals.

In the case of the Gulf of Mexico summit, though, the big question is not what will happen at the three-day meeting but what will happen when everybody returns home.

“The summit itself is a starting point,” said summit coordinator Quenton Dokken, a Gulf of Mexico-based marine scientist.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi are hosting the summit, scheduled to run Tuesday through Thursday.

Almost 400 invited participants are expected to focus on issues of public health, the economy, the environment and collaborative governance.

The bulk of the financial backing has come from oil and gas companies that have contributed between $5,000 and $100,000 — the two largest industry donors being Shell and BP.

BP spokesman Hugh Depland said the oil and gas industry has “as much right as anybody to be concerned about the Gulf.” BP wants to be sure decisions about its future are based on science, Depland said.

“We have an interest in making sure that the decisions that are made about the long-term viability of the Gulf are really good decisions,” Depland said.

The summit has its roots in an April 2004 invitation from Gov. Jeb Bush to Gulf rim governors asking for ideas about ways states could cooperate on Gulf issues.

The letter became the framework for the creation of a Gulf of Mexico Alliance that includes the White House and Gulf rim states in the United States and Mexico.

At the summit, the alliance is scheduled to release an action plan for the Gulf of Mexico that has been in the works since the alliance’s first meeting at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve south of Naples last summer. Since then, the alliance has held public hearings around the Gulf of Mexico.

All the activity has come on the heels of high-profile reports by the Pew Oceans Commission in 2003 and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in 2004 that called for renewed attention to the Gulf’s woes.

Both reports highlight problems with pollution, habitat loss, declining fisheries and inadequate funding for ocean research.

The summit was originally set for November 2005, but Hurricane Katrina prompted Gulf of Mexico Alliance leaders to postpone it so states could focus on the massive recovery effort.

Katrina also refocused part of the alliance’s mission on planning for coastal hazards, a topic that headlines a panel discussion of U.S. and Mexican governors on the summit’s first day.

At least four Mexican governors are expected to attend, but only two U.S. governors — Perry and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco have accepted invitations.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen Castille said Friday that Gov. Bush is busy working with legislators to get money for Gulf programs and couldn’t attend the summit.

“I don’t think the commitment is any less,” she said.

Castille is scheduled to release the Gulf of Mexico Alliance action plan on Tuesday and would not provide details in advance.

She said Florida is “committed to changing the status quo” and said she has “100 percent confidence” that the plan will translate into tangible improvements in the Gulf.

So far, the White House response to calls for action on the Gulf of Mexico have been disappointing, according to the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.

The bipartisan initiative, led by a task force of members of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and Pew Oceans Commission, gave the United States a grade of D-plus on ocean policy reform.

Adm. James Watkins and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, co-chairmen of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, are scheduled to deliver keynote presentations to the summit.

Rookery Bay Manager Gary Lytton, who has helped craft the action plan to be unveiled this week, said the summit represents an opportunity to turn around the Gulf’s decline.

“Everyone recognizes this cannot be a plan that sits on a shelf,” Lytton said. “We just can’t afford to see that happen.”

An ocean advocate for the National Environmental Trust in Washington, D.C., said she isn’t sure what to expect from the summit.

“Something has to be done, so hopefully something will come out of it and not just a lot of talk,” said Ivy Newman, national outreach associate for the NET’s ocean conservation campaign.

© 2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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