Last week, I wrote a blog about the importance of engaging communities in the decision making process as we move forward with restoration plans and projects. Recognizing this, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force is creating a Gulf of Mexico Citizens Advisory Committee (GMCAC). This GMCAC will provide independent citizen advice to the EPA Administrator on a broad range of environmental issues affecting the five Gulf of Mexico Coastal States. It is important to point out the difference between this entity and the Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens Advisory Council (GMRCAC) for which we have been advocating. Explaning each of these advisory bodies below, I hope to shed some light on how they differ and why each in its own right is vital to protecting and restoring the Gulf of Mexico and our coastal communities. The Gulf of Mexico Citizen Advisory Committee is created by The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and will be a 25-member Committee. Its authority is limited to offering advice to officers and agencies in the executive branch of the Federal Government, in this case, specifically advising the EPA as they lead the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and oversee the implementation plan that the task force is currently developing. Funding for such a committee may come directly from Congress or provided with monies indirectly through general agency appropriations.Additionally, FACA committees operate “in the sunshine” which means that their meetings, deliberations and reports are open and available to the public.The Regional Citizen Advisory Council is an independent, non-profit organization, whose purpose is to promote environmentally safe operations of the oil and gas industry, help prevent future spills, and monitor pollution . Under The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90), two regional citizen advisory councils were created – one for the Prince William Sound area and one for Cook Inlet. Congress envisioned the councils as a mechanism to foster long-term partnerships between industry, government, and the coastal communities of Alaska.The numbers of citizens represented on these councils differs:” The Prince William Sound RCAC have more than a dozen voting board members that represent major public stakeholders in the region, including cities, villages, and groups representing Alaska Natives, conservation, tourism, commercial fishing, and aquaculture. Representatives of state and federal agencies sit as non-voting members. All member organizations and agencies appoint their own representative to the Council” The COOK INLET RCAC Board of Directors is comprised of 13 members, each representing a specific interest or community. The cities of Anchorage, Kenai, Homer, Seldovia, and Kodiak each have a seat on the Council, as does the Kodiak Island Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Interest groups represented on the COOK INLET RCAC Board of Directors include Alaska native organizations, state chamber of commerce (tourism), environmental groups, recreational groups, commercial fishing groups, and aquaculture associations. In addition, COOK INLET Representatives of state and federal agencies sit as non-voting members.RCACs have no legal authority or vote in the decision-making process. Rather, the council comments on and participates in monitoring and assessment of environmental, social, and economic consequences of oil-transportation activities, including comments on the design of measures to mitigate the impacts of oil spills and other environmental effects of oil and gas operations.OPA 90 requires operators in the region to provide annual funding for these RCACs.Some major RCAC in Alaska accomplishments have included:” Addressing public questions and concerns about spill risks and spill prevention measures.” Supporting the creation of response strategies to protect vulnerable coastal areas from spills.” Advising the U.S. Congress on double-hull requirements for oil tankers.” Funding research that resulted in vapor controls on tankers to limit the release of dangerous fumes.” Funding buoys that collect data for modeling the path of spilled oil.” Helping to establish a tanker escort system with tug boats to monitor conditions and assist tankers.In short, the GMCAC created by the EPA will be able to advise the EPA on Gulf Ecosystem Restoration considerations. The GMRCAC would advise the oil industry and their regulators on how to proceed safely, and with minimal future environmental harm to the region.Michelle Erenberg is the Special Projects Coordinator and works with the Gulf Future Coalition. To find out more about the Gulf Future Action Plan click here.