Senate hearing reviews Gulf Coast oil spill restoration efforts

By Will Lindsey, Environmental Defense Fund

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing Thursday (June 6) to review the progress that has been made to restore the Gulf Coast since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) chaired the hearing, titled “Gulf Restoration: A Progress Report Three Years after the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.” The hearing came nearly a year after passage of the RESTORE Act, legislation that allocates 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties from the 2010 oil spill to Gulf restoration. Both senators were cosponsors of the legislation.

Seven witnesses testified at the hearing, representing organizations responsible for managing these restoration funds – as well as the projects that will utilize these funds – that will soon begin flowing through three funding streams as a result of the 2010 spill. These streams include $2.54 billion resulting from the BP criminal settlement, an initial $800 million as a result of a Transocean settlement and $1 billion as a result of agreements with BP to fund early restoration efforts under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. The amount of funds available under the RESTORE Act is expected to grow substantially once the ongoing civil trials with BP are complete.

Notably, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who played a vital role in passing the RESTORE Act, gave the opening remarks. In reference to the need to better understand the Gulf Coast in order to implement restoration efforts, Landrieu said, “Science can make us much better leaders, if we would just listen to our scientists and to the actual research.” Following these opening remarks, each witness provided an oral testimony on the efforts their individual organizations have taken since the spill.

In response to the first testimony by Lois Schiffer, General Counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sen. Nelson stressed Congress’s expectation that the administrative agencies involved with the implementation of restoration projects follow the legislative intent of Congress in enacting the law. “One of the things that we want to emphasize here is that we want you to pay attention to the law,” Nelson said. The statement came in reference to a previous comment by Sen. Landrieu indicating that the law was written in order to strike a balance between competing interests and thus a portion of the law specifically allocates a percentage of the funds solely to environmental restoration.

In the final testimony, Dr. Stephen Polasky, professor of environmental economics at the University of Minnesota, emphasized the importance of the RESTORE Act and the funding that it will provide to Gulf restoration. “Under the RESTORE Act, we can reinvest in nature to ensure the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico, so that it continues to provide benefits to current and future generations,” said Polasky.

Moving forward, it appears that Congress will be paying encouragingly close attention to the ways in which the Gulf Coast restoration money from these different funding streams is being spent. Also encouraging is the apparent intention of the recipients of these funds to work together to ensure that comprehensive restoration remains a key focal point of the ongoing efforts along the Gulf Coast. As Rachel Jacobson, Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the Department of Interior, stated in her testimony, “We have a responsibility to the public to ensure that we make wise investments that are well-coordinated across the spectrum, through all funding streams.”