By: Deborah Barfied and Ledyard King, news-press.com- Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - JULY 9, 2021 - It took Gulf Coast lawmakers more than two years of prodding and negotiating to persuade a divided Congress their communities deserve most of the billions of dollars BP will pay in fines for its role in the 2010 oil spill. Now comes the next challenge: figuring out how to spend that money.
Officials in the five states affected — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — have some time to weigh which projects and programs will best help the Gulf Coast recover from the nation’s worst environmental disaster. The first payments of the estimated $5 billion to $20 billion in fines imposed by the federal government aren’t expected until early next year, after a scheduled civil trial. If a settlement is reached before that, the money could arrive sooner.
“It’s a monumental law,” Brian Moore, legislative director at the National Audubon Society, said of the RESTORE Act, which passed Congress last week as part of a larger transportation bill that President Barack Obama signed into law on Friday. “This place has been devastated really — the environment and the economy. We need to fix it fast.”
Under the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies Act, 80 percent of the fine money levied against BP is earmarked for the five Gulf Coast states. It’s an unprecedented arrangement. Typically, such financial penalties go to an oil-spill liability trust fund and the U.S. Treasury’s general fund for distribution nationwide.
Much of the BP money is expected to finance projects already on the drawing board, including some proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Louisiana passed a 50-year coastal plan earlier this year that calls for 109 projects, including hurricane protection and coastal restoration. In Alabama, a Mobile-based environmental group is pressing for a project to build 100 miles of coastal oyster reefs. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant named a team Tuesday to recommend state projects.
In Florida, officials already are eyeing the money for environmental, tourism and economic development purposes.
Grover Robinson IV, an Escambia County commissioner, said many projects, such as beach renourishment and storm water systems, are logical candidates for RESTORE Act money.
“The best news is that we’ve got a plan and a structure without the money,” he said. “That allows us the proper time to go do this. There’s no rush to immediately try to make everything happen and go make decisions, because we don’t have everything yet.”
From the outset, sponsors of the RESTORE Act said most of the fine money should go to Gulf Coast communities because they know best how to spend it.
But they attached a few conditions:
• Thirty percent of the money will be controlled by the 11-member Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which will develop a comprehensive restoration plan. Members include all five governors (or their designees), the secretaries of the Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Interior departments, the secretary of the Army and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
• Sixty-five percent of the money will be controlled by state and local governments for such things as tourism, the environment and the economy.
Of that, 35 percent will be distributed equally among the five states for economic and ecological recovery. The rest will be distributed to the states based on a formula that takes into account factors such as miles of beachfront and population.
• The remaining 5 percent of the fine money will finance research, with half going to the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and half going to a “center of excellence” in each state.
Under Florida law, 75 percent of the state’s share will go to the eight most affected Panhandle counties and 25 percent will be available for other Gulf counties. The eight are Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Walton counties.