U.S. Senate Backs Billions for Gulf Restoration

Response boats in the Gulf of Mexico clean up oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

United States Coast Guard

Ecological and economic restoration efforts along the Gulf of Mexico could be getting a major injection of cash. The U.S. Senate today voted 76-22 to approve the RESTORE Act, which would divert 80% of any fines and penalties paid by oil giant BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to restoration activities in five Gulf Coast states. The vote makes it increasingly likely that a majority of the fines—which could total $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion—will be earmarked for an array of regional activities, including scientific research.

The Deepwater Horizon spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf. Under the Clean Water Act and other laws, BP and its partners face an array of fines that would typically go to an oil spill liability trust fund maintained by the U.S. government. But Gulf Coast lawmakers and a bipartisan alliance have pushed to steer much of the money back to the five states most harmed by the spill: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. (The federal fines are separate from and in addition to other cash settlements that BP has been making with individuals and businesses.)

During today's Senate floor debate—which didn't last long—Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), one of the bill's sponsors, said the time for action had come. "It's been only 2 years, but we remember the horrors we saw on our televisions," she said. "This is the time to act."

"We don't have forever," added Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), another sponsor. "We need to take care of this today."

Their colleagues responded with enough "yes" votes to attach the RESTORE Act to a major transportation funding bill. That bill could now be taken up by the House of Representatives, which last month endorsed the RESTORE Act's major provisions on a voice vote.

The Senate plan would divide the 80% share as follows:

  • 60% to a new Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which would spend one-half of the money to develop and implement a "comprehensive ecosystem restoration plan," and one-half on restoration projects devised by the states.
  • 35% in equal parts to the five states, to be used for economic and ecological restoration projects that they choose.
  • 5% to be divided between gulf science and fisheries programs overseen by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Although many scientists support the measure, some worry that the research funds are being divided too many ways to be effective, and that the legislation takes too narrow a view of the science needed to achieve real restoration. Others fear that state officials will divert funds to projects with questionable ecological benefits, such as beautifying parks or improving beaches.

Still, many advocacy groups celebrated today's vote. "It just makes sense for the fines from the Gulf spill to come back to help repair the damage that has been done to the economy and the environment," said a joint statement issued by Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy, and Oxfam America.