Report: BP not required to fund some economic restoration efforts after oil spill


WASHINGTON — The Oil Pollution Act does not require companies responsible for the massive Gulf oil spill to pay for restoring consumer confidence in the tourism and seafood industries, the final report of the federal commission investigating the spill said.

As a result, Alabama must rely on the goodwill of BP PLC and the spill’s other responsible parties to fund such economic restoration efforts, according to the report, released Tuesday.

Additionally, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, as the group is officially known, recommended that 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines resulting from the spill should be spent on environmental restoration of the Gulf.

That figure rankled some Alabama officials, who have pressed for more spending on economic restoration, believing that Louisiana would get the lion’s share of environmental restoration money.

“The commission’s report seems to favor funding for Louisiana to the detriment of the other four affected Gulf states,” U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said in a news release. His statement added that “the commission’s recommendations are wrought with job-killing, anti-drilling ideas.”

Casi Callaway, leader of the Mobile Baykeeper environmental group, called the report “meaningful,” adding that it’s almost exactly what she was hoping to see.

“They heard us. They heard the community when we told them environmental restoration is the key to economic recovery,” Callaway said.

In a statement, BP spokeswoman Ellen Moskowitz said the company was still reviewing the 398-page report, but added, “We support the commission’s efforts to strengthen industry-wide safety practices.”

Crude gushed from BP’s Macondo well on the sea floor for nearly three months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11.

President Barack Obama established the commission in late May. Since that time, the group has traveled to the Gulf states and held several meetings exploring the disaster’s causes and possible solutions.

“The Oil Spill Commission was composed of Obama-appointed, partisan members, and given that, their recommendations need to be taken with a grain of salt,” Shelby spokeswoman Pam Simpson said in an e-mail.

Aaron Viles, deputy director of the environmental group Gulf Restoration Network, disagreed, noting that a leader of the seven-member panel, William K. Reilly, has ties to oil giant ConocoPhillips.

“This commission is not a bunch of bomb-throwing radicals,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “One of the co-chairs had to step off the board of Conoco to take up this charge.”

Many of the report’s recommendations would need congressional approval — likely with Gulf state lawmakers leading the way — to take effect.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, expressed some concerns that were similar to Shelby’s, saying officials should “work together to ensure the Gulf is made whole again.”

“However, this terrible accident should not be used as a back-door method to reduce or eliminate domestic offshore production of oil and gas.”

U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, said the report clarifies the causes of the spill, but he cautioned against adding bureaucracy to government oversight of drilling.

“We must continue to strive for an appropriate balance that guarantees adequate environmental safeguards and meets our country’s ever-increasing energy needs,” he said in an e-mail.

Finding consensus across the Gulf state congressional delegations could be difficult, if one state reaps most of the benefits.

The report notes that Louisiana suffered most of the environmental damage. Just a few pages later, it recommends spending 80 percent of Clean Water Act money, an amount projected to be in the billions of dollars, strictly on environmental projects.

“To use these particular recommendations would void every assurance the president of the United States and BP have made to me and to the people of Alabama,” outgoing Gov. Bob Riley said in a written statement.

A spokesman for Dr. Robert Bentley, who will become governor Monday, said Bentley was still reviewing the report, but is dedicated to restoring the coast.

The report also notes that while BP has come to agreements with Louisiana and Florida to help fund efforts aimed at boosting consumer confidence in Gulf tourism and seafood, a similar agreement with Alabama has not yet been reached.

“Such indirect financial harms are currently not compensable under the Oil Pollution Act,” the report said.

Asked whether BP would compensate Alabama for this even if federal law doesn’t require it, a company spokeswoman declined to comment.

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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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