As 1-Year Anniversary Approaches, Congress Should Direct Fines from BP Spill to Gulf Restoration
As the 1-year anniversary of the BP Gulf oil disaster fast approaches, I wanted to write a series of blogs that focus on some of the National Oil Spill Commission’s key recommendations, and where things stand when it comes to implementing these recommendations. For my first blog in this series, let’s take a look at Gulf restoration – what did the Commission recommend and what has Congress done in response?
Background: Under the Clean Water Act, oil spill polluters responsible for releasing oil into the ocean must pay the government a fine of $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled. If the government determines gross negligence on the part of the oil polluters occurred, that fine is increased to $4,300 per barrel spilled. Under this Act, BP and the other parties liable for the Deepwater Horizon disaster are likely to pay a minimum of $5 billion, and could be required to pay up to $21 billion if they are found to have been grossly negligent. Under law, this fine money is deposited into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund until this Fund reaches $2.7 billion—excess fines are then sent to the US General Treasury.
Oil Spill Commission Recommendation: The Commission—recognizing that dedicated, sustained funding is necessary to accomplish long-term Gulf of Mexico ecosystem restoration—recommends that Congress should direct 80% of the Clean Water Act fines from the BP Gulf oil disaster to support implementation of a Gulf-wide restoration strategy. This investment – coupled with a strong restoration plan guided by sound science – would enable the Gulf to begin restoring the region’s ecosystem, which has been systematically degraded by decades of over-development. The Commission states that key criteria of restoration projects should include (1) national significance; (2) contribution to achieving ecosystem resilience; and (3) the extent to which national policies such as related to flood control, oil and gas development, agriculture, and navigation directly contributed to the environmental problem.
Gulf residents agree that they should benefit from CWA fines—in a recent poll, nearly 8 out of 10 voters in the Gulf states said they would favor such a measure. Additionally, Navy Secretary and former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus also recommended this approach in a recent report.
Status: This Congress, two bills have been introduced in the House that would turn this widely-supported idea into law – but neither has been passed yet. Both the bipartisan Gulf Coast Restoration Act (H.R. 6112), introduced by Representative Scalise (R-LA), and the Gulf of Mexico Economic and Environmental Restoration Act (H.R. 480), introduced by Representative Castor (D-FL), would dedicate 80% of CWA fines paid by BP and other responsible parties to the Gulf coast’s long-term recovery. The Senate has not introduced any proposals that would accomplish this goal.
Summary of Bills: Under both the Scalise and the Castor bills, 80% of the CWA fines paid by BP and other responsible parties would be deposited into a Gulf restoration fund. In the Scalise bill, a task force would distribute amounts in this fund to Gulf states for conservation, restoration, and mitigation projects, as well as planning assistance and the implementation of federally-approved conservation management plans. Similarly, under the Castor bill, the task force would allocate the majority of this money to Gulf states for economic development, ecosystem restoration, and public health rehabilitation based on each state’s proportionate share of the coastline and population. The task force would distribute the remaining portion to certain newly-established Gulf recovery programs.
So, what’s the verdict? While the House has taken the first steps toward implementation of the Oil Spill Commission’s call for Gulf restoration funding, they have to-date fallen short of making it happen. And in the Senate, so far this recommendation has gone entirely unheeded.