The nation’s five Gulf of Mexico states stand to receive billions of dollars for environmental and economic restoration efforts under landmark legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law Friday.
The RESTORE Act, an amendment to the 2012 Surface Transportation Extension Act, guarantees Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas will receive 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines levied against BP and other parties responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Preliminary government estimates place the fine amounts between $5 billion and $20 billion, depending on the level of negligence assigned to BP and other parties deemed responsible for the spill.
A bipartisan group of Gulf Coast lawmakers pushed the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies) Act through Congress. The law’s passage represents a watershed moment for such civil penalties. Prior to the RESTORE Act, such fines went to an oil-spill liability trust fund and the U.S. Treasury’s general fund.
Lawmakers from Gulf states, along with state and local officials from the Gulf region, argued that the states most impacted by the environmental disaster should receive a big portion of the Clean Water Act penalties to restore Gulf Coast ecosystems and fuel economic recovery in the region.
The RESTORE Act figures to be a boon for fish and wildlife populations in the Gulf region. The restoration of coastal marshes, estuaries and other parts of the Gulf ecosystem are expected to benefit a variety of freshwater and saltwater fish species as well as numerous wildlife species.
The Gulf Coast is considered North America’s most important wintering area for migratory waterfowl, with millions of ducks and geese annually using coastal habitats. The Gulf Coast also harbors a vibrant recreational fishery, and the Gulf’s commercial fishery produces about 40 percent of U.S. commercial seafood in the lower 48 states, including 67 percent of the nation’s oysters.
“Ducks Unlimited is pleased to see Congress recognize the national importance of the Gulf Coast and seize this precedent-setting opportunity to support its restoration. …” Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall said in a news release. “Without this investment in restoration, the people and wildlife that depend on the Gulf region’s ecosystem, as well as industries vital to the entire country, remain even more susceptible to future disasters.”
In addition to the Gulf region’s importance to fish and wildlife, the area plays a vital role in the U.S. economy. Roughly a third of all domestic oil production comes from the Gulf, and 10 of the nation’s 15 busiest ports by tonnage are on the Gulf. The region also supports a tourism industry worth an estimated $34 billion a year.
The RESTORE Act will allot fine money in different ways. Some 35 percent of the money will be divided equally among the five Gulf states to be used for economic and environmental restoration projects. Another 30 percent will be awarded to the states based on a weighted formula that takes into account such considerations as miles of oiled coastline during the oil spill, coastal population, and proximity to the spill. An additional 5 percent of the money will fund fisheries research and monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico.
The remaining 30 percent of the fine money will go to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, a joint federal-state entity that was established by the RESTORE Act. The council will consist of 11 members – the five Gulf state governors or their designees, the secretaries of Interior, Commerce, Homeland Security and Agriculture, the Secretary of the Army and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council’s principal mission will be development of a comprehensive restoration plan for the Gulf Coast.
Each state will have its own process for determining how the funds will be used, but the act requires that each state’s plans for spending the money be “consistent” with the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council’s comprehensive plan.
Many coastal restoration plans have been in the works for some time, and it’s likely some of the fines will be used to implement existing plans. Louisiana, for instance, recently approved a long-term coastal restoration plan that calls for numerous measures, including freshwater diversions from the Mississippi River and the rebuilding of coastal barrier islands.