Friday, July 15 marked one year since BP shut the leak caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform off the shore of Louisiana. The U.S. government estimates that 4.9 million barrels from the well were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. About 491 miles of coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were contaminated.
BP disputes the government estimate, stating in its 2010 annual report that the spill probably was closer to 4 million barrels, of which 850,000 barrels were captured, burned or skimmed off the water.
At stake is the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), which is the official determination of the damage BP caused, which will be the basis for fines to be levied. The total fines and penalties assessed against the British oil giant could exceed $30 billion.
How that money is spent has yet to be determined. The Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, formed by the task force headed by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, recommended that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act of 1977 fines collected from BP PLC over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should go to fund Gulf Coast recovery efforts.
Last week the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was hammering out an agreement on the legislation (S.861 – Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2011) that would do just that, but they have yet to finalize the allocation formula.
In April, BP agreed to provide $1 billion toward early restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico to address injuries to natural resources caused by the spill. The trustees for this restoration fund are: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
That $1 billion will be divided three ways:
Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas will select and implement $100 million in projects. This is a fund that the City of Pensacola and Florida Wildlife Commission hope to tap for the Hubs/Sea World Hatchery.
NOAA and DOI will each select and implement $100 million in projects.
The remaining $300 million will be used for projects selected by NOAA and DOI from proposals submitted by the state trustees.
Behind the scenes, Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson has been working to ensure the methodology used to distribute these billions in restoration dollars is fair to Escambia County and Northwest Florida. He is scheduled later this month to testify before Congress on the allocation of the restoration dollars.
“It’s my understanding that what’s holding the Senate committee on the oil spill monies is figuring out how they’re going to divvy it out among the states and how they are going to divvy it out among the purposes,” said Robinson, who was chairman of the Escambia County Commission last summer and served on the governor’s oil spill task force.
“The NRDA and Mabus dollars are generally being handled by two people in the state of Florida–Bill Williams and myself,” he told the IN. Williams is a Gulf County commissioner and incoming president of the Florida Association of Counties.
“We started meeting regularly last fall,” said Robinson. “We came up with an oil spill policy that went out to our legislators that helped get the oil spill legislation passed. We’re now working on the federal legislation.”
According to Robinson, the Mabus plan called for the fines and penalties to be spent on environmental restoration, economic restoration and human health. The commissioner has had several conversations with Louisiana officials on the allocation of the NRDA dollars.
“I told them, ‘You have a heck of a lot of environmental damage, but we have economic damage. It came from your state and impacted us,’” said Robinson.
He has recommended that the funds should be allocated 40 percent environmental, 40 percent economic and 20 percent for human health. “The reason is because I believe the economic is just as important as the environmental. You can’t have one without the other, especially when you have a state like Florida that has worked to produce a clean environment for its economy, and then to have BP go and dirty it up.”
Robinson and Commissioner Williams have worked hard to provide a unified front to Congress and have asked the county commissions of the eight Florida counties directly impacted by the oil spill–Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla–to pass a joint resolution on how the funds should be allocated.
The resolution endorses the recommendations of the Mabus report. It states that the money can be spent on any of the three impacts addressed in the Mabus report—economic, environmental and human health, with up to 50 percent available for economic restoration and diversification.
The resolution also recommends that the funds be allocated with 60 percent based on coastline and 40 percent based on the population of that jurisdiction with Gulf-front exposure.
“We also pushed that 75 percent of the NRDA money go to the states directly impacted by the oil spill, like we did with the state legislature,” said Robinson.
Seven of the counties passed the joint resolution without amendments. Santa Rosa passed but struck out the allocation formula. According to Robinson, the reason was because they have considerable population for the region, about 150,000 residents, but only 4.1 miles of shoreline.
“Their issue is similar to Mississippi and Alabama, who have small coastlines and want some level equity in funding,” said Robinson.
To build support throughout the region, Robinson has proposed to our federal legislative delegation that the allocation be done with a third for each jurisdiction, a third based on population and a third based on coastline.
“The methodology (in the joint resolution) would be great for Escambia County, but at the end of the day I have to get everybody in the boat,” he told the IN. “For the smaller counties to know that a third would be divided eight ways. It also works with states like Alabama and Mississippi that are in the same boat because they have such small coastlines. At the same time, you can’t do it all pro-rata because it wouldn’t be fair to Florida and Louisiana.”
The Senate committee has not announced when it will vote on S. 861. Until then, Commissioner Robinson may have his hands full getting all the states and counties from splintering on the funding allocation.
“It’s tough to build a team. We have to have something to keep everybody in the boat.”