Congress wants to see more ecological recovery in the Gulf of Mexico, such as this oyster restoration project in Alabama.

Congress wants to see more ecological recovery in the Gulf of Mexico, such as this oyster restoration project in Alabama.


Hurry up and start fixing the Gulf, U.S. senators say

More than 4 years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and unleashed a torrent of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, only a trickle of funding for repair of ecological damage has been spent. At an oversight hearing today by a U.S. Senate subcommittee, senators voiced their impatience with an interagency council in charge of a lot of the money. “You all have had 2 years,” Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) told three members of the council who testified. “It’s time to get moving.” Council members blamed the delay on a Catch-22: States don’t have the money to plan how to spend restoration funds.

There are three main pools of money intended to help the Gulf of Mexico recover, not just from the 2010 oil spill but also from long-standing deterioration. The first comes from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a process run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies, which has already provided a $600 million down payment for restoration projects from future fines against the energy company BP, which had the drilling permit. More money is coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It is spending a $2.5 billion Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund set up in a plea agreement with BP and Transocean, which owned the drill platform. The third pot will come from the federal trial against BP, which is still ongoing, and Transocean, which already settled, for violating the Clean Water Act. BP’s fine, to be determined in the penalty phase of the trial, which starts in January, could be as much as $20 billion. Under a 2012 law called the RESTORE Act, 80% of the total fines would be spent in the Gulf. Because Transocean settled its case for $1 billion, the fund already has $800 million. But little of it has been spent.

The RESTORE Act created the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to review proposals and hand out 30% of funds stipulated in the federal court’s decision. Another 35% will be divided equally among the five affected states. States will also have access to another 30% based on how severely they were impacted. The final 5% will go to science, including centers of excellence and long-term research and monitoring.

Last year the council—made of up five Gulf states and six federal agencies—released an overall plan for how the money would be spent. Then it had to determine a selection process for grants. “This has taken more time than the council members anticipated,” Justin Ehrenwerth, executive director of the council, told the subcommittee. He says the council had to deal with uncertainty about when and how much money would be available. On 25 July, the council issued proposed rules for grant selection and said it would begin accepting proposals from state and federal agencies next month. The council hopes to have a list of proposed projects available for public comment in 2015.

“We wish we could move faster,” said council member Trudy Fisher, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, at the hearing. “It is time to quit talking and start funding.” She and other council members blamed a lack of money for the delay. “We have been handed an oyster, but we have no shucking knife—the planning dollars,” added Grover Robinson, who leads the Florida Gulf Coast Consortium, which is creating the state’s spending plan. Senator Mary Landrieu (D–LA) emphasized that Louisiana isn’t holding things up; it has had a long-standing plan for investing in restoration activities.

Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) welcomed the council’s proposed rules, but said they lacked enough detail to be implemented. Senator David Vitter (R–LA) said he hoped that the scope of proposed projects wouldn’t be limited by the funding now available. “We don’t want that to turn into ultrasmall projects,” he said. “They should contribute to large-scale gulf restoration.”