I won't forget the miles of slick caused by bunker fuel spilled near the Bay Bridge last October, nor the tanker crash that dumped 58,000 gallons of fuel in the San Francisco Bay in 2007. Perhaps that's why I empathize with what people along the Gulf Coast have suffered since 4.9 million barrels of crude oil were released into their waters during BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster. There's a chance to help them, but it has to happen now, while Congress is in lame-duck session.
Think of it as a Robin Hood move of taking money from BP and using it to restore the Gulf's ecosystems. It could be just that simple, so long as we apply sufficient pressure on senators to pass legislation already passed by the House, before the Senate breaks for the holidays.
The legislation would allow a Gulf restoration plan to be funded by a portion of the fines expected from BP for violating the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act—between $5 billion and $21 billion—but only a portion. Where will the rest of the money go?
David Ringer, speaking from his Vicksburg, Miss., office of the National Audubon Society, tells me the money that BP will eventually pay in fines isn't directed at restoration. Instead, he says, "it goes to the oil-spill liability trust fund that the government manages to help it respond to and clean up future oil spills." But Ringer and his colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation in Baton Rouge and the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., believe that some of the money from BP's fines should fund critically needed restoration work in the Gulf.
"What we're calling for in this case," explains Ringer, "is to direct some of that money to restoration, because the damage was so extensive to a number of ecosystems. Don't just lock the money away and not let it get to the region that was so damaged by this event."
The three environmental groups together have stated that Congress needs to prioritize passing the legislation this week "to dedicate Clean Water Act fines paid by BP to environmental restoration in the Gulf region for the sake of the region's tourism, fishing and shipping industries, which are the backbone of its economic future."
The oil-spill response bill passed by Congress would direct $1 billion of BP's fines to Gulf restoration. But leading up to the recent election, the Senate has neglected to act on the bill. One billion dollars is a relatively small percentage of BP's fines, and apparently it isn't even controversial. "Nobody is really on the other side of this," says Ringer, "so that's why we're saying this to the Senate. There's a lame duck Senate here, we know it's short, but let's just get this done. Let's please demonstrate political goodwill and the ability to work together for the next two years."
One obstacle is that the oil-spill response bill is part of larger oil and gas regulation in the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act (CLEAR). Sean Crowley, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains the urgency. "The lame duck session may be the best and/or last chance to get funding for Gulf Coast restoration," says Crowley, since the CLEAR act will die at the end of the year. Furthermore, Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., who added the restoration provision to the act, gave up his seat to run in Louisiana against Sen. David Vitter, R-La.—but lost.
"The GOP will be running the House leadership next year," Crowley says, and while the Melancon amendment passed unanimously by voice vote, all but two house Republicans opposed the energy bill it was attached to, "which is why," Crowley adds, "the bill will never see the light of day in the next GOP-controlled Congress."
Should the bill pass, it would invariably help the eroding Mississippi Bay Delta region which for 80 years has lost an average of 25 square miles annually. ("That's an area the size of Manhattan," notes Ringer.) The BP funds could even go toward rectifying environmental troubles that existed before the disaster, also caused by oil and gas operations. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post last week reported that BP is already back to making profits, even after paying out roughly $40 billion for the Gulf mess. Shouldn't restoration get a mere $1 billion of that?
To push senators to act on Gulf restoration, go to www.audobonaction.org/spillbill.