Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives gave voice vote approval to an amendment that would dedicate 80 percent of the estimated $5-21 billion in Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 BP oil spill toward restoration of the area’s ecosystem and economy. The Senate version of that amendment is expected to be taken up this week.

The House-passed amendment is a trimmed down version of the RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, introduced in the House and Senate.

As a result of House spending rules, the House amendment doesn’t actually authorize spending the money in the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund, as the RESTORE Act does, but sets aside the money for that purpose, so that it’s not spent on other things. (In other words, Congress would have to pass additional legislation to authorize spend the money in the fund on ecosystem and economic restoration.)

In an effort to get the RESTORE Act passed as soon as possible to speed up the gulf’s recovery from the BP oil spill, Senators Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., have introduced the RESTORE Act as an amendment to the Senate transportation bill. The Senate is likely to vote on its version of the amendment as soon as this week.

As we previously reported, Nelson, along with 9 of the 10 Gulf Coast Senators, co-sponsored the RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act when it was introduced in July 2011.

The Senate amendment stipulates that at least 80% of the expected oil spill fines must go toward Gulf restoration. Currently, fines from the BP oil spill go to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, to cover restoration costs for future oil spills, rather than helping the gulf recover from the BP oil spill.

As it is written, RESTORE would see that oil spill fines be divvied up three ways:

  • 35% of the funds (7% per state) would go directly to the five affected states, for environmental and economical restoration.
  • 60% of the funds would go to a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which would spend it two ways: 30% would be spent by the Council according to a Comprehensive Plan, which must “restore and protect the natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine habitats and coastal wetlands of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.” The other 30% would be allocated to the five states according to an impact formula based on miles of shoreline oiled, distance from the Deepwater Horizon well-head, and state population, and spent according to state plans.
  • 5% percent would be allocated to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science, Monitoring and Technology Program and Fisheries Endowment.

Environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, have worked on efforts to bring oil spill fines back to the Gulf for nearly two years.

In a press release sent out last week, EDF reps said that having the House approve by voice vote the whole premise underlying the RESTORE Act (that the penalties belong in the Gulf for restoration) is a huge step forward. “…it puts the RESTORE Act in a better position to be attached to any moving vehicle, now that we have such a strong showing of support in the House.”

According to the EDF’s gulf restoration policy director Courtney Taylor, funds set aside by RESTORE could go toward projects that are crucial to the restoration of the area hardest-hit by the largest accidental release of oil into marine waters in the country’s history.

“One of the critical things [the funds could do],” says Taylor, “is jump-start the Mississippi River Delta ecosystem, which is currently in decline and losing land each year.” Money spent on projects that are currently un-funded could help restore the health of the Delta, one of the most vulnerable regions of the Gulf Coast. Restoring the health of the Delta, says Taylor, would feed the overall health of the Gulf.

The amendment still needs Senate approval, but not enactment of the stand-alone RESTORE Act, before it can move forward. Co-sponsors of the bill are currently working to find an agreeable way to offset the funds set aside by RESTORE. Because it is such a broad bill, with bi-partisan support, legislators will need to find an offset that is agreeable to both sides.

In December, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force issued its final strategy for reversing oil spill damage, recommending that Congress devote a “significant portion” of the BP oil spill fines toward restorations efforts in the Gulf, which was saturated with more than 200 million gallons of oil following the April 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.

A poll conducted last year by both Marco Rubio and Nelson’s pollsters revealed that 75 percent of Florida voters and 82 percent of Panhandle voters are more likely to support candidates who back legislation ensuring that BP oil spill fines are spent on Gulf restoration.

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