Gulf Restoration Bill Gets House Hearing, But Obstacles Remain

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Legislation that would steer billions of dollars in fines from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to ecological and economic restoration projects along the Gulf of Mexico got a cautious endorsement today from members of a key congressional panel. But the only scientist to testify at the hearing was critical of some of the research provisions in the RESTORE Act, which faces numerous obstacles to becoming law.

"We're making progress, but there are still a lot of things to be worked out," said Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), one of the leaders of the effort.

Today's hearing before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives represented an important step forward for Gulf Coast lawmakers, restoration scientists, and environmental groups hoping to grab a chunk of the Clean Water Act fines that the U.S. government expects to win from BP and other parties responsible for the spill. The fines, which could total $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion per "responsible party," would typically go to an oil spill liability trust fund maintained by the government. But Scalise and his allies in the Senate have introduced legislation that would funnel 80% of the fines to the five Gulf Coast states most hurt by the spill: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Both bills would give 60% of that 80% share to a new restoration council that would pick ecological cleanup and repair projects. Some 35% would be split among the five states and used for projects they select. The remaining 5% would be allocated to Gulf research and fisheries science programs.

The Obama Administration and several independent panels have endorsed the idea, although not the specific percentages. But with Congress under pressure to trim the budget, the prospect of earmarking billions of dollars in potential revenue for just one region has become a harder sell.

In the Senate, the legislation (S. 1400) has already survived its first important test, winning passage in September in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. But the similar House bill (H.R. 3096) had yet to face scrutiny in any of the three committees with jurisdiction over the legislation, and backers worried that opposition from the powerful transportation committee could doom the measure. So they were relieved recently when Committee Chair Representative John Mica (R-FL) announced that the panel would hold a hearing on the bill.

Mica didn't take a position pro or con in opening today's hearing, saying he first wanted "to hear from everyone out in an open forum," and that he hoped there would be "a fair resolution of whatever we come up with." Two panels of Gulf State politicians, officials, and business representatives urged the committee to approve the legislation, saying it was critical to getting the region back on its feet. And although none of the dozen or so committee members who drifted in and out of the hearing spoke in opposition, several raised concerns.

One major issue was whether the legislation would divert funds from the oil spill liability trust fund. Another was whether the bill, as written, might enable BP or another responsible party to wriggle out of paying for certain kinds of environmental restoration by claiming that projects were already funded under the RESTORE Act. In testimony, two Obama Administration representatives—one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one from the Coast Guard—echoed those concerns, and suggested potential fixes.

The biggest critique came from the lone scientist to testify, physical oceanographer Robert H. Weisberg of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. One problem, he said, is that the bill takes too narrow a view of the science needed to achieve real restoration. It is "very precise with its definitions pertaining to administrative matters," he said, "but less precise with its definitions pertaining to matters of ecology, or more generally with matters pertaining to the workings of the ocean as a complex, multifaceted system." As a result, Weisberg said, the envisioned research program "falls short of facilitating the defensible science necessary to establish how the Gulf of Mexico ocean system works" and achieving restoration. A better approach, he argued, would be an integrated ocean observing program aimed at revealing how the gulf is connected to and influenced by broader ocean systems.

Another problem, he said, is that the bill provides too little money for too long a list of research activities. One-half of the 5% research share, for instance, would go to a new fisheries science program, with the other half going to five new research centers (one in each state) that are supposed to focus on five research areas. That could mean just $800,000 per year per state if the fines total $20 billion, he calculates—and less if the fines are lower. Such "diluted" funding is "hardly enough to do much … comprehensive observation, monitoring, and mapping of the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "My point is that a higher percentage of the penalty monies must be apportioned toward understanding how the Gulf of Mexico works," he concluded.

Scalise said the bill's backers will consider those and other suggestions before seeking final approval from the committee. But a busy congressional calendar isn't their only challenge. House and Senate backers will also need to persuade colleagues from other states to swallow the bill's price tag, an estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years.

Posted in Environment, Funding