When millions of barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after a blowout in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, the beaches of Oklahoma were not covered with a sticky goo. Salmon in Washington State were unaffected, and the oysters of Chesapeake Bay kept doing whatever it is oysters do.
No, it was five states — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — that bore the damage. Shorelines were soiled, marshes clogged, wildlife killed, the fishing and tourism industries damaged. Still unknown is what the longer-term effects will be.
So it only makes sense that the bulk of the money from fines paid by BP — the company that operated the doomed oil rig — should flow to the Gulf states.
Ah, but what makes sense and what actually happens in Congress — especially with billions of dollars involved — are often far apart.
The fine that BP is expected to face, under the Clean Water Act, will be based on the amount of oil spilled — a figure still in dispute. But the final amount could be between $5 billion and $21 billion.
The Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act — better known as the RESTORE Act, S. 1400 and H. 3096 — would require that 80 percent of that money be used to help the Gulf states in several ways.
• 35 percent would be split evenly among the five states for their own projects and programs to restore natural resources.
• 30 percent would go to a federal/state council to create a comprehensive plan to restore natural resources.
• 30 percent would go to the states, weighted by the impact on that state, for restoration — but with oversight by the federal/state council.
• 5 percent would be invested in an endowment to support science, monitoring and fisheries management.
The proposed council and the targeting of money would be in contrast to the few-strings-attached approach in using BP money to promote tourism. Those dollars have attracted more tourists but also resulted in questionable expenditures such as $30,000 on sports towels and a $1 million Christmas display in Panama City Beach.
In the end, Florida would get about 19 percent of the available money from BP fines — in other words, as much as $3 billion dollars.
A poll of Floridians by Hamilton Campaigns (which works with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson) and Ayres McHenry & Associates (which works with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio) showed a unity seldom seen these days. Consider, the RESTORE Act had the support of 84 percent of Florida voters, 92 percent of Panhandle voters, 83 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans and even 84 percent of Tea Party supporters.
A study showed that the money could start long-term investment in ecosystem restoration, helping nearly 60 businesses in Florida. Restoring wetlands and other resources would boost tourism and fishing.
So, what’s the problem?
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. (that’s the Oklahoma whose beaches were not soiled), might block the bill, saying the money should go elsewhere. If the legislation doesn’t pass, the money would go to a fund for future spills and to the general treasury.
Rep. Bob Gibbs, a powerful Republican from Ohio, says the money would only duplicate efforts already under way. The Gulf states counter that the money from fines would be in addition to money already being spent.
There’s also an issue with the new pay-as-you-go budgeting requirements, with the Congressional Budget Office saying more than $1 billion in federal spending could have to be cut elsewhere. Others argue that applies only to tax revenue, and not to fines.
And there’s a dispute over whether the money could be used to acquire new habitat or military buffers lands — something that the Florida Wildlife Federation and some other environmentalists support, but that our Rep. Steve Southerland, a sponsor of the House bill, opposes — or just to restore damaged habitat.
Regardless, the basic issue is this: The five Gulf states suffered significant damages from the BP spill, not just to their economies but to their environments. Restoration and study are essential. It’s only right that the bulk of any BP fine come to the Gulf.
The first Department of Justice hearing on the BP fine is Feb. 27. Let’s hope that, by then, Congress will decide to do what’s right for the Gulf states.