RESTORE Act a big win for the Gulf Coast
The damage inflicted by the massive BP oil spill in April 2010 took a terrible toll on ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, including the diverse and valuable bird populations that call the Gulf Coast states home.
And not long after the gushing deep-water well was capped and oil spill cleanup crews began to get the upper hand, lawmakers from the region began the hard work to persuade Congress our communities deserve to benefit from most of the billions BP will pay in fines for its role in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
That work paid off in a big way on July 7 when President Barack Obama signed the omnibus transportation bill, which included the RESTORE Act.
Under the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of the fine money levied against BP is earmarked for the five Gulf Coast states. That is good news for Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.
Of course, we don't yet know how much money will actually be flowing into the states - estimates range from $5 billion to $21 billion - and it certainly won't be moving until sometime next year after the civil trial, unless a settlement is reached before that. But we do know the RESTORE Act provides the framework for how this money will be divided among states and in what ways it may be used.
The majority (60 percent) will be allocated to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. Thirty-five percent will be available to Gulf Coast states to bused within the impacted region for environmental and economic restoration. And 5 percent is to be dedicated to science and monitoring of Gulf Coast ecosystem restoration and fisheries.
This was sensible legislation with strong support from leaders on both sides of the aisle. Thankfully, as Congress wound up matters in June, this very important regional issue did not fall victim to partisan politics.
Indeed, a bipartisan poll shows support for Gulf restoration as being very strong across all party lines: 90 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of independents, 76 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of those who say they agree with the tea party movement.
Congress - in this instance, anyhow - has shown that it can come together to do what's right for the American people.
"This tremendous victory would never have been possible without the broad support of environmental, wildlife and business groups in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf Coast," U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said prior to the president's signing of the bill.
The next step? Gulf Coast advocacy groups must work to make sure state and local officials are following the general blueprints for where and how we can best use these funds in our communities because restoring the communities and environment of the Gulf region is critical not only to the region's economy, but also to the strength of our national economy. Thousands of people visit the Gulf coast every year for birding and to see the wildlife that is unique to this region. The Gulf currently supports a $34 billion per year tourism industry, and its fisheries support an estimated $22.6 billion dollars in seafood, commercial and recreational fishing-related activity.
Using Gulf oil spill penalties to restore the Gulf region's communities, environment and economy is the fair and right thing to do.