Proposed measure could bring BP fine money to Gulf Coast
Five states would get 80 percent of payments
Deborah Barfield Berry
News Journal Washington Bureau
This article came from Washington! Huge shout out to Casi Calloway of Mobile Baykeeper for all of her hard efforts!
WASHINGTON — Business owners and officials from Florida and other Gulf Coast states urged Congress on Wednesday to quickly approve a measure that could send billions to the region to help repair damage caused by last year's massive oil spill.
The hearing was the first in the House to discuss legislation — called the RESTORE Act — designed to make sure Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas get 80 percent of the fine money that BP will pay as a result of the oil spill.
"It forces the responsible parties to be responsible for the damage they caused," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, told the panel. "This damage took place along the Gulf Coast, and the fines paid for the damage should be returned to the Gulf Coast."
Lawmakers estimate the fines levied against BP could total $5 billion to $20 billion.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that directing 80 percent of the fine money to the five Gulf States would cost $1.2 billion over 10 years.
Environmental advocates say the measure balances the Gulf region's economic and environmental needs while providing transparency on where the money would be spent.
"We feel like the urgency needs to be ramped up," said Jay Liles, policy consultant for the Florida Wildlife Federation, based in Tallahassee.
Under the legislation, the five Gulf states would share some of the money to restore their coastlines and help coastal communities.
The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council also would get money to craft a comprehensive environmental recovery effort.
Other funding would go to the five states based on a formula that considers state needs and damage caused by the spill.
Miller and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, are co-sponsors of the House measure. Both Florida senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio — also support the measure.
Similar legislation proposed by Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu faces opposition from Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has threatened to block the proposal because he said the funding could be used elsewhere.
Without the legislation, the fine money would go into a trust fund for future oil spills and to the U.S. Treasury. Gulf Coast lawmakers had hoped Congress would consider the bill by the end of the year but have pushed that goal to early next year.
"Time is our enemy," GOP Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi said. "We need to get moving on this."
About 5 percent of the fine money would go to the National Endowment for the Oceans for research, including studies of the spill's effects.
Gulf Coast lawmakers initially had sparred over how to split the funding but recently reached a compromise.
"It speaks volumes that we are in agreement," Southerland said. "To say this is an easy lift is not a fair assessment."
At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers said the Gulf Coast's fishing and tourism industries are still struggling, and the region's fragile ecosystem needs restoring.
Gulf County Commissioner Bill Williams, representing the Florida Association of Counties, told the panel that steering the fine money to the most-affected communities is simply fair.
"This is not a handout," Williams told them. "These five states were grossly impacted by the acts and negligence of others."
But Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said the region already has received billions in federal funding for Hurricane Katrina recovery projects and in offshore drilling revenue.
He also said that since the RESTORE Act would redirect money otherwise destined for the Treasury and the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, its cost would have to be offset.
The trust fund contains $2.3 billion, said Craig Bennett, director of the Coast Guard's National Pollution Funds Center.
"It would not affect the (fund's) solvency," Bennett said of the RESTORE Act. "(But) it will be that much less money."
Garrett Graves, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, said the trust fund is "not designed to be the single bill-payer" and the best use of the fine money would be for "proactive mitigation" efforts to help the Gulf region recover.
Obama administration officials have said they support efforts to send much of the BP fine money to the Gulf for recovery efforts.
The RESTORE Act is competing for attention against other pressing legislation, and its supporters acknowledge the challenges of finding $1.2 billion in spending cuts to offset the CBO's estimate of the legislation's 10-year cost.
(Ledyard King of the News Journal Washington Bureau contributed to this story.)