RESTORE Act needs support from a distance now

Final settlement of claims against BP looms big on the horizon

02-17-2012 // Bob Serata
Ingrid Taylar

The longer Congress twiddles its collective thumbs about passing the RESTORE Act, the greater the potential loss to all Americans.

BP’s oil well poured some 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing wildlife, local businesses and a couple of tourism seasons. Another 770,000 gallons of chemical dispersants were added to the poisonous soup.

It will take billions of dollars to repair the damage.

So both houses of Congress, knowing their own predilections for mishandling money, came up with legislation — known as the RESTORE Act — that would place 80 percent of the penalties assessed on BP and its Deepwater Horizon partners and contractors into a trust account to be used for Gulf restoration projects. Not a penny of taxpayer money is involved.

But BP, with a possible total liability of around $71 billion, is working on a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle all criminal and civil claims arising from the Gulf oil disaster. If a settlement is reached before the RESTORE Act is passed, all of BP’s fines will go to the U.S. Treasury — Congress’s checking account. Any fines collected from other “responsible parties” like Transocean, Halliburton and Anadarko will also go to Washington DC instead of to the Gulf.

So how does this impact your life? You live a thousand miles from the Gulf. You’ve never sunned yourself on a sugar-white Florida Panhandle or Alabama beach, nor dragged a toe through the sand along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. You haven’t danced at Tipitina’s, trolled for tuna, nor played the tables at Beau Rivage. You wouldn’t eat a raw oyster if your life depended on it.

Thousands of jobs. Maybe yours.

A Duke University study, released in Dec. 2011, looked at 140 companies that have been involved in large-scale government-funded Gulf coast (wetlands) restoration projects. “Coastal restoration provides job opportunities in the Gulf Coast region and 32 other states,” the study reported. A total of 391 employee locations were identified nationwide. Of course, most (261 locations, or 67 percent) were in the five Gulf States — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. But 32 employee locations were concentrated on the Pacific Coast and 25 dotted the Midwestern states.

Two thirds of these firms are small businesses. More than 42 percent have fewer than 100 employees.

Unfortunately the Duke study didn’t look at the jobs created by other Gulf industries. Consider the businesses associated with the seafood industry.

 

Leilani Munter

A third to 40 percent of the nation’s seafood harvest comes from the Gulf. As an industry, seafood harvesting got hammered by the oil disaster. At one point, more than 88,000 square miles, or 37 percent, of Federal fishing waters in the Gulf were closed to commercial and recreational harvest. The news talked about shrimpers and oystermen losing their “crop.” Fin fishing came to a standstill. Packers stopped packing. Truckers stopped trucking. There was an ice glut on the market.

But Gulf seafood is more than fish filets and shrimp cocktails. If you’re growing an organic garden, there’s a good chance the fancy organic fertilizer you’re using to feed your prized basil and arugula is made in large part from a little Gulf fish called the menhaden. Gulf fishermen have been catching menhaden commercially since the late 1800s. Today menhaden are a prime ingredient in animal feed, especially in the beef and aquaculture industries, pet foods and fertilizers.

So what happened to the menhaden after the spill? Good question. It’ll take five or ten years for us to find out. If Congress uses the BP fines on unrelated spending instead of Gulf restoration (funds another airport where there are no planes or a suspension bridge over a desert), we might never know. Remember the Exxon Valdez? Alaskans are still wondering if the Pacific Herring will ever come back.

Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of jobs across America (and the world) are connected to a healthy Gulf. Tourism is a $34 billion a year business in the Gulf region, where the environment is the economy. Chilly up there in Michigan? C’mon down. Start planning online: visit travel sites, resort and recreation sites, check the weather, buy an airplane ticket, reserve a room, book a fishing charter, find a restaurant, download a book to keep you in your chaise lounge. A lot of jobs are touched along the way – programmers, hosting services, writers, photographers, software developers. If there’s an airport in your city it employs jet plane mechanics, baggage handlers, ticket agents, pilots and latte servers helping you on your way to the Gulf.

Shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Ten of the nation’s 15 largest shipping ports by cargo volume are located along the Gulf coast. It takes a lot of people to get that stuff to you. And if you drive to the mall you might note that 90 percent (yes, that’s almost all) of the nation’s total offshore crude oil and natural gas production comes from the Gulf.

Of course, you could use that natural gas to heat your home and power your stove so you can enjoy a meal while you watch the snow fall.

It’s your national treasure.

The first paragraph of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Draft Phase I Early Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment says: “The Gulf of Mexico is a priceless national treasure. Its natural resources – water, fish, beaches, reefs, marshes, oil and gas – are the economic engine of the region. The Gulf of Mexico is likewise vitally important to the entire nation as a bountiful source of food, energy and recreation. The Gulf Coast’s unique culture and natural beauty are world-renowned. There is no place like it anywhere else on Earth.”

Let’s add: and BP et al caused lots of damage.

The Gulf took a major hit but it is resilient. Many scientists I’ve interviewed are pretty sure the Gulf would fix itself in a couple hundred years — sooner if there are no more catastrophic natural or unnatural disasters and humans stop dredging, walling, filling and otherwise manhandling the Gulf’s coastal wetlands.

We can hurry the process, though. It’ll take a bunch of money but the good news is it won’t come out of taxpayer pockets. As far as you’re concerned, it’s free.

The RESTORE Act calls for the establishment of a trust account into which 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties are deposited so all RESTORE Act projects would be funded by penalties from BP and others responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The remaining 20 percent of those penalties would go to the U.S. treasury (that’s you) to be managed and spent by your senators and representatives.

Time is short however. BP is negotiating a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Reuters reported that Martijn Rats, head of European oil research at Morgan Stanley, said he saw a 70 to 80 percent chance that BP and DOJ would reach a settlement deal sometime between BP's full year results announcement in February and the scheduled start of legal hearings in New Orleans on February 27. Rats told Reuters he thought the settlement would be $20 billion to $25 billion.

Lots of experts think a settlement by Feb. 27 is unlikely because of the complexity and sheer number of the claims against BP and its contractors. But if a settlement is reached before the RESTORE Act is passed, Gulf restoration will be at the mercy of Congress and government bureaucracies starved for cash.

So what can you do?

Tell your Congressional representative to get the House version of the RESTORE Act out of committee and on to the floor for a vote. Then tell your Senator to pass the RESTORE Act. It has already been approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a voice vote so it’s available for consideration by the full Senate. Send an email. Write a letter. Make a phone call. Some staffer will be tallying the messages so everyone counts.

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