Oil spill: Gov.-elect Robert Bentley shares some of Bob Riley’s recovery money concerns


WASHINGTON – Gov.-elect Robert Bentley shares many of his predecessor’s concerns regarding federal control over oil spill recovery dollars, he said in a recent interview, adding that states should not be told what projects to spend the money on.

But Bentley also offered a more conciliatory tone than has outgoing Gov. Bob Riley, withholding judgment on Washington’s overall handling of the spill and saying he accepts that some of the recovery money may be walled off strictly for environmental restoration.

“The federal government does not want to be embarrassed in this like they were in (Hurricane) Katrina, so I think they have worked harder in trying to solve this problem,” Bentley said.

As a result of this summer’s massive oil spill, Alabama and the other Gulf states could receive billions for recovery projects through two mechanisms in federal law: the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, and Clean Water Act fines.

Riley has led a tug-of-war with federal officials over control of the money in recent weeks, exchanging letters with President Barack Obama and the spill recovery chief Obama named, as well as sharply criticizing them in media reports.

Riley even suggested Alabama could drop out of the joint state and federal talks and negotiate independently with BP PLC and the other responsible parties, which must pay for the spill recovery.

Bentley indicated that he would consider that option but might not be ready to break away just yet.

“I’m not sure. I’d have to think about that,” Bentley said. “It sounds logical to me. …I’m like Gov. Riley, I’m not sure that the federal government really should play as big a role in this negotiation as they’re doing.”

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last month that federal officials would not take a lead role deciding on NRDA projects. Instead, that would be a joint effort between the state and federal governments, they said.

Whether the state or federal government controls Clean Water Act money will depend on legislation not yet passed by Congress, federal officials said.

Currently, that money is directed to a trust fund reserved to help finance the cleanup of future spills, but multiple efforts are under way in Congress to send money from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill fines to affected states.

Like Riley, Bentley said he thinks Alabama’s damage from the spill was more economic than environmental. Unlike his fellow Republican, Bentley said he thinks it makes sense for NRDA money to be limited to funding only environmental – and not economic – recovery projects.

Federal officials have said the law only allows for such environmental use, but Riley has expressed concerns that Alabama could get shortchanged with that restriction.

“We understand that, you know, Louisiana feels like they have been impacted more, but there will be disagreements over whether that is the case, and how much more that they should get,” Bentley said.

“I think there is a fair way to do it, and I think that we’ll be able to work that out.”

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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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