The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is considering legislation that would direct the majority of penalties paid by those responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Gulf Coast states. But some lawmakers, including committee Chairman John Mica, wonder if that approach is fair.
The RESTORE Act, he said at a Dec. 6 hearing, "is crafted primarily to the benefit of the Gulf states that endured the primary damage." He added, "We want to be fair and equitable to all parties, including U.S. taxpayers."
But the bill's chief sponsor, Steve Scalise (R-La.), countered, "It is critical to note that it is the responsible party—not the taxpayer—that will foot the bill for the cleanup in this disaster. Our legislation accomplishes that while making sure there is a mechanism in place to allow each state to respond to [its] unique recovery needs."
Mica held off judgment on whether he ultimately would support the RESTORE Act or a similar measure.
Craig Bennett, director of the National Pollution Funds Center, U.S. Coast Guard, who has estimated the cost for the Gulf cleanup will total about $40 billion, warned that "diverting" funds from the oil-pollution trust fund to the Gulf states could mean there would be fewer funds available for future spills.
Bennett also said there could be some potential for "overlap" between activities funded by a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund created by the RESTORE Act and the categories of damages specified under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. But he added that he was merely making observations and not casting judgment one way or another on the RESTORE Act. "I'm agnostic" on the bill, Bennett said.
The idea of giving the Gulf states most of the funds paid by BP and others responsible for the oil spill seems to be gaining support. This summer, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a comparable bill.
Further, the Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force's final report, released on Dec. 5, also calls for the majority of penalties paid by those responsible for the spill to go to the Gulf states' cleanup and restoration.
Administration officials describe the task force's report as a blueprint for the cleanup effort. A key priority is putting coast restoration on an equal footing with other national priorities. Other components of the framework include stopping the loss of wetlands and working to reduce nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf. In the report's introduction, the committee's chairwoman, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, wrote, "The next and most important step is to prioritize projects that put the strategy into action and generate substantive results."
Some projects in the works include the restoration of 442 acres of canal and spoil banks back to emergent wetlands or shallow-water habitat. According to the Dept. of the Interior, that project will improve hydrology over an estimated 23,000 acres of wetlands, with an estimated construction cost of $700,000.
The National Park Service (NPS) and the Army Corps of Engineers are working on two projects to restore Gulf Islands National Seashore. Expected to begin in fall 2012, an already-funded $439-million program will return approximately 20 million cu yd of sediment to the West Ship and East Ship islands and fill the Camille Cut in Mississippi, according to the Dept. of the Interior. Further, the NPS and Corps are developing a $6-million project, expected to start in November 2012, to restore approximately 300,000 to 400,000 cu yd of compatible sediment to Florida's barrier islands.
The task force's report says it relies on existing authorities and resources. But the bill's sponsors caution that, without their legislation, some of the Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP and the other responsible parties could go for unrelated federal spending.