Congressional partisanship has led to so much inaction that even two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the largest oil spill the United States has ever seen—Congress has yet to enact a single piece of legislation to change how we manage offshore oil and gas exploration, respond to the inevitable oil spills that result from such activities, or penalize those responsible. But there is some hope on the horizon for the Gulf Coast and, by extension, its fisheries: the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act.
The RESTORE Act is part of a sweeping transportation bill being debated in Congress that would help fund our nation’s highways, mass transit projects, and other transportation infrastructure. The Senate and the House of Representatives have each passed versions of the transportation bill, although legislators still have a long way to go in reconciling the two versions. Given the broad bipartisan and bicameral support for the RESTORE Act, however, it’s likely that if the two chambers can agree on a transportation bill, the act will be included in the final package.
Both House and Senate bills include language that would return 80 percent of the fines BP will ultimately be required to pay for violating oil spill provisions of the Clean Water Act to the Gulf Coast states for coastal restoration purposes. Fines could potentially run as high as $20 billion, meaning after the first $2.7 billion is taken off the top and returned to the oil spill liability trust fund to replenish funds withdrawn during the initial cleanup, almost $14 billion would be set aside for the Gulf Coast.
Coincidentally, $14 billion is precisely the amount of annual losses the Gulf Coast faces today as a result of extreme weather events, according to a report from America’s Wetland Foundation and the energy company Entergy.
This transfer of money to the Gulf Coast was a keystone recommendation of “Beyond Recovery,” a 2011 report from the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America. It remains a commonsense step to take to restore the economic and ecological damage inflicted as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and decades of offshore oil and gas development in the Gulf.
The region still faces much uncertainty two years after the spill. We still don’t fully understand how the volatile cocktail of 206 million gallons of crude oil and 1.8 million gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit that were dumped into the water will affect commercial and recreational fisheries, or juvenile fish development. But signs are already less than encouraging. Shrimp harvests are down, and many with no eyes are turning up in nets. Fishermen are landing red snapper and more than 20 other species covered in lesions. Dolphins are stranding themselves on beaches in unprecedented numbers. Oyster beds have been decimated and harvests remain well below average.
The Gulf is also a key spawning ground for bluefin tuna, among the highest-value and most-overfished species in the ocean. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates as much as 20 percent of the 2010 spawn was killed by the oil spill, the agency predicts the loss will only translate to a 4 percent reduction in “future spawning biomass”—the population of fish that grow to reach reproductive maturity.
Scientists don’t expect this blip will cause major hardship for the long-term viability of the species, but it doesn’t mean bluefin or any other species should be considered safe from the oil’s effects. We likely won’t have conclusive evidence of the full extent of the spill’s damage for years. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, for instance, the region’s previously productive herring fishery suddenly collapsed four years after the spill occurred, and it has yet to recover. Many signs point to Exxon’s oil as a cause of that delayed reaction.
Note that there are some fundamental differences between the two RESTORE Act bills, most notably that the House version, authored by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), requires an additional act of Congress to actually spend any money from the trust fund, whereas the Senate version would make funding immediately available for eligible uses. The Senate bill also contains language establishing a National Endowment for the Oceans, funded by interest generated from the fund containing BP’s fines and designed to provide funding to all coastal states to improve the health of all our oceans and coasts—a proactive step against future disasters.
A wide variety of programs and projects that would strengthen the health of the region’s commercial and recreational fisheries feature prominently in the eligible uses of funds under both House and Senate versions of the RESTORE Act and the National Endowment for the Oceans. These include restoration of wetlands that serve as natural fish nurseries, fisheries monitoring, tourism promotion “including recreational fishing,” and promotion of seafood consumption.
And this investment won’t just be good for fish; it will also create jobs—57,000 of them, according to the moderate scenario described in a new study from Mather Economics. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) took to the U.S. Capitol steps earlier this week for a press conference to lambaste House Republicans for not “grabbing this bill and running it to the Speaker’s desk to pass it”—what Landrieu called “in essence, a jobs bill.”
As CAP and Oxfam described in “Beyond Recovery,” economic diversification in the Gulf will be key to long-term viability, particularly in a region where employment is driven disproportionately by oil and gas companies. These companies must not remain the dominant source of employment in a region still struggling to recover from our country’s worst oil spill. Their canals carved up wetlands and accelerated erosion. Their extraction of resources is causing the land to subside. And their products, when burned, release gases that are driving sea-level rise, ocean warming, and acidification.
A broad coalition of recreational fishing industry groups and environmental organizations has recognized the potential solutions the RESTORE Act could provide and expressed resounding support for the Senate version of the bill. Passage of a strong, restoration-focused RESTORE Act would be a huge first step in helping wean the Gulf Coast economy off oil and gas.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.