WASHINGTON (News-Press.com) – The Obama administration isn't moving fast enough to release hundreds of millions of dollars slated to help the Gulf Coast recover from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Florida officials said Thursday.
Congress passed the bipartisan RESTORE Act in 2012, creating a way to distribute billions in civil fines levied against BP and other companies involved in the spill, which befouled coastal beaches, ravaged marine ecosystems and damaged the tourist trade.
But regulations setting up the distribution mechanism have yet to be finalized, leaving communities unable to move forward with plans to improve water quality, rebuild habitats and promote tourism.
"Those of us who wrote and passed this law, we're impatient. We want to get on with it," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, told administration officials at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing Tuesday on the implementation of the two-year-old law. "The message from us to you is, get on with it."
Justin Ehrenwerth, executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, told lawmakers he expects the Treasury Department to issue rules by the end of the summer that would begin releasing the money. The delays stem from time spent "exploring a number of options to try get money quickly" to communities, he said.
The spill remains the nation's worst environmental disaster.
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf for more than 80 days.
Marine life, including dolphins, died in record numbers and sugar-sand beaches as far away as the Florida Panhandle were matted with tar balls. Vacationers abandoned the region in droves, fearing coastal waters were too unsanitary for fishing or swimming.
The RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies) Act was designed to spell out how the fine money — as much as $21 billion — would be parceled out.
Under the law, 80 percent of any civil and administrative penalties under the Clean Water Act is steered into the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund for ecosystem restoration, economic recovery and tourism promotion in the region. The remaining 20 percent flows into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
Most of that fine money — $5 billion to $20 billion — is expected to come from BP once federal court proceedings conclude.
About $1 billion already has been collected from a settlement with Transocean, which operated the oil rig. That money is sitting in an escrow account until the Treasury Department finishes writing the rule that sets the distribution in motion. That rule also will apply to the BP money when the case is over.
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, who chairs the 23-county Florida Gulf Coast Consortium, told the Senate panel it's been frustrating to wait for money that seems tantalizingly close. Even planning for projects is on hold because officials don't want to commit to project that might not be approved, he said.
"We have essentially been handed an oyster," Robinson told senators. "However, at this particular time, we have no tool to open the shell. We have no shucking knife, which is the planning dollars, meaning we are unable to really access this wonderful gift."
Florida has been able to access other spill-related money, including about $100 million from BP under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. But even that has been a challenge to spend, said Mimi Drew, Florida Gov. Rick Scott's designee to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.
"It's been a long, slow process," she said.