RESTORE Act critical to helping Gulf Coast in aftermath of Gulf oil disaster

Advocates of the RESTORE Act say it is critical to invest the funds directly on the Gulf Coast for projects that help rebuild the ecosystem and economy.

01-26-2012 // Craig Guillot
According to some estimates, BP could face as much as $20 billion in fines from the Clean Water Act for its responsibility in the Gulf oil disaster of 2010. Environmental advocates and organizations say the proposed RESTORE Act is essential to put fine money directly to work in restoring the Gulf Coast.

Directing penalties to affected areas

J Pott

The RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunity and Revived Economics of the Gulf States Act of 2011) will invest 80 percent of fines by BP and other parties directly in areas affects by the disaster.

The legislation is supported by a number of organizations including NWF, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy and Oxfam America.

Brian Moore, legislative director of the National Audubon Society, said the RESTORE Act is critical because it will invest funds from the fines in the damaged areas. He said unless the legislation is passed, there is nothing stating that the investments have to be directed to the Gulf Coast.

Moore said that based on how much oil was spilled and based on what kind of degree of negligence is found in the courts, Clean Water Act fines could range from $5 billion to $21 billion. Without the RESTORE Act, all funds will be directed into the Federal Treasury where it’s highly likely that they’ll be used for non-disaster related things like deficit reduction.

“We need this legislation to take 80 percent of what will come into the treasury and send it down to these areas for restoration. It could be the largest amount for restoration ever,” said Moore.

The act creates a framework to manage and finance the recovery and will invest 80 percent of the penalty moneys directly to the coast. Sixty percent of those funds will be allocated to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. Half of those funds will be used to implement the Council's comprehensive federal environmental plan; the other half will be distributed to the five affected Gulf states for their own plans. Other investments will be directed to science and monitoring of Gulf Coast ecosystem and fisheries.

Moore said a major benefit of the act is that it can help fund desperately-needed projects and Gulf Coast restoration, without taxpayers footing the bill.

“It would be a win for the environment—not at the cost of the taxpayers, but at the cost of the parties who damaged it. This is a clear example of how Clean Water penalties should be used,” Moore said.

Environmental restoration is economic restoration

Leilani Munter

A healthy Gulf ecosystem is not just critical to wildlife but to the entire nation’s economy. Roughly a third of all domestic oil comes from the Gulf and the ports and infrastructure supported by the environment are essential in keeping the industry running. Approximately 40 percent of all the seafood consumed in the United States comes from the Gulf and it is home to10-15 of the country’s largest ports by tonnage. And from the swamps of Louisiana to the pristine beaches of Florida, the Gulf’s natural wonders support  a $34-billion tourism industry.

Proponents of the RESTORE Act say the funds are needed to help restore the coast not just for environmental reasons, but also because the environment is so critical to the regional economy. David Muth, Louisiana state director for NWF's Mississippi River Delta Restoration campaign, said the damage to the state’s natural resources have had a ripple effect throughout the entire economy.

“It’s appropriate that funds come from the offender so we can have system-wide restoration that will help not just the ecosystem but the residents that benefit from it,” said Muth.

Commercial fishing was one such industry that was hit hard during the summer of 2010 when fishing grounds were shut down and populations dwindled. Charter fishing also essentially ground to a halt in southeast Louisiana. According to the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, the industry was responsible for almost 26,000 jobs and $2.2 billion in Louisiana alone before the disaster. Although fish populations have rebounded, some parts of the coast’s reputation have not. Compounded with a poor national economy, it means that many captains still aren’t back to their pre-disaster numbers.

Some left the business altogether. After 18 years as a fishing guide, Captain Pat Holliday of Cocodrie Charters left the business in March 2011 to take a job with an oilfield services firm. Bookings were down 40 percent after the disaster and like many in the industry, Holliday had to look elsewhere for the income and security he needed.

“It was the uncertainty. I got lucky enough to get another opportunity and took it. The fishing is great, but it just damaged the reputation of the coast. We don’t know how long it’s going to be before people forget about it,” said Holliday.

Holliday said he may run the occasional charter on the weekends, but his days as a full time guide are likely over. Like many tourism departments, the fishing industry is relying on money from BP to help rebuild that damaged reputation. Terrebonne Parish, which refers to itself as the “Saltwater Fishing Capital of the World” is currently embarking on an ad and branding campaign with a $2 million contribution from BP.

Funneling investments into restoration

Dolphins in Gulf of Mexico, May 2010

Advocates of the RESTORE Act say it is critical to invest the funds directly on the Gulf Coast for projects that help rebuild the ecosystem and economy. While other laws could come into play down the line, the Clean Water Act is the primary vehicle through which the federal government can hold BP accountable.

Originally enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean Water Act originally established the basic infrastructure for regulating discharges of pollutants into waterways of the United States. It was reorganized and expanded in 1972 and then last amended in 1977. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the law was strengthened to include civil and criminal penalties. In 1991, Exxon plead guilty to violating the act and agreed to pay $100 million.

Chris Macaluso, coastal outreach coordinator for the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, said while the RESTORE Act will direct funds to all five impacted Gulf states, it is especially critical for Louisiana. The state not only saw the majority of oil but its coastline is rapidly eroding—a problem that was exacerbated by the oil disaster.

Macaluso believes that funding for Louisiana should first be put to projects that have the highest priority with the state and coastal plans such as major barrier island restoration projects in the Barataria, Terrebonne and Timbalier basins. The state recently received $102 million in federal grants for three projects to restore deteriorating wetlands but leaders say it's only a trickle of what is needed to provide more long-term solutions.

Muth has long advocated for using the forces and sediment of the Mississippi River to help restore Louisiana's coastal wetlands. He said once Louisiana's new Coastal Master Plan 2012 is completed in the spring it could provide a backbone for what he calls “system changing” projects such as diversions and barrier island restoration.

“I really think Clean Water Act penalties for Louisiana should go to implement recommendations of the master plan. Many projects are financially out of reach and this is a way to do it,” he said.

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