Congress is urged to direct BP oil spill penalties to restoring the Gulf


Top Obama administration officials Wednesday called on Congress to direct most of the billions of dollars in Clean Water Act penalties BP is expected to pay for last summer’s oil spill to restoring the Gulf.

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both said that it is crucial to create a dedicated financing stream if the nation is to turn the disaster into an opportunity to restore the Gulf Coast to a condition better than it was before the spill.

“It is important for Congress to direct the Clean Water Act penalties to support restoration and recovery in the Gulf,” Lubchenco said.

“It remains essential that Congress act on that,” Barnes said.

Both officials addressed an afternoon gathering at which the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America unveiled a report, “Beyond Recovery: Moving The Gulf Coast Toward a Sustainable Future.”

Building on recommendations by the Obama administration, the report also backs legislation introduced by Louisiana lawmakers to devote 80 percent of the penalty money to helping the coast not just recover from the spill, but to help heal generations of environmental degradation.

The president named EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, to chair a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, and Barnes said that economic and environmental recovery efforts ought to complement one another.

“We don’t have to view it as either-or; it’s not economic or environmental restoration,” she said.

Indeed, the CAP-Oxfam report recommends that legislation creating a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund and Gulf Coast Recovery Council put aside about 3 percent of Clean Water Act fines, or about $500 million over 10 years, to develop the Gulf Coast as a hub for innovation for coastal restoration industries and activities – to become to coastal science and restoration what the Netherlands is to water management and flood control.

The Center for American Progress is a liberal think tank with tight ties to the Obama administration. Barnes went from helping to create the center to joining the Obama campaign and then the White House. Oxfam is an international relief and development organization that worked exclusively in the developing world until it began working in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Van Jones, who worked briefly at the White House as the president’s adviser on green jobs, and is now affiliated with the Center for American Progress, noted that the Gulf Coast, after Katrina and the oil disaster, have become “part of the moral imagination of America.” He said that America had been horrified by the consequences of the “sink or swim” ethos in national political culture that was exposed by Katrina, and that, with the synergy of forces converging on the post-spill response, “I think we actually have a chance for a happy ending down there.”

Everyone who joined the discussion at the Center for American Progress offices talked about the urgency to move quickly before national attention to the spill drifts away, and some Louisianians in attendance seemed worried that the moment has already passed.

“I don’t think there’s enough political will to bring back the Gulf,” said Denise Byrne, acting executive director of Friends of New Orleans. “I don’t think the American public realizes how important the Gulf is.”

David Gauthe of Bayou Interfaith Share Community Organizing in Thibodaux, also expressed concern that in the past local communities were “never in the war room” when decisions that affected their lives were made by federal officials “We’d like to see that happen,” Gauthe said, and both the administration officials and the CAP-Oxfam report said that was essential.

“The president made clear that he wants the restoration plans to come from the Gulf to Washington and not the other way around,” Lubchenco said.

According to the calculations in the CAP-Oxfam report, the Clean Water Act penalties could generate anywhere from $4.3 billion to $16.9 billion, depending on whether the responsible parties are found to be negligent or grossly negligent, and if Congress votes to direct 80 percent of those funds to restoration efforts.

There also would be Natural Resource Damage Assessment funding, which under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, requires those responsible for oil spills to pay for damages to the environment and the loss of public access to those natural resources. There will also be by 2022 an estimated $3.1 billion in revenue sharing from Gulf oil and gas leases, and another $598 million in federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program funding. And there could be, they estimate, more than $45 billion eventually in criminal fines resulting from the spill, depending on the outcome of a Justice Department investigation and potential criminal prosecution.

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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