House Votes to Wall Off Penalty Money for Gulf Restoration
Billions of dollars in Deepwater Horizon spill fines would be walled off in a special trust fund that could only be tapped to pay for Gulf Coast restoration, under a measure approved by the House yesterday.
(From E&E / by Paul Quinlan / Originally posted Friday, February 16, 2012) – Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) introduced the amendment, which was attached to the House-passed transportation legislation in a voice vote. He touted it as a milestone in efforts that began shortly after the 2010 spill to dedicate 80 percent of the resulting Clean Water Act fines to Gulf Coast economic and environmental restoration.
Scalise’s proposal deftly sidestepped some of the controversies that have prevented similar RESTORE Act legislation from reaching the floor in either chamber (E&E Daily, Dec. 8, 2011).
Still, what will become of the measure is unclear, as the Senate must take up and approve its own transportation legislation. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), sponsor of the RESTORE Act in the upper chamber, put the full committee-passed bill forward as an amendment to the Senate transportation bill.
If both vehicles pass, the Scalise language would then presumably be reconciled with the Landrieu bill in conference committee and, proponents hope, something close to the full RESTORE Act would become law.
The Scalise provision approved yesterday calls for devoting 80 percent of the fines, which could exceed $20 billion, to be deposited in a newly created “Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund.” Only an act from Congress could draw from the fund and only for the purpose of economic or environmental restoration in the five Gulf states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
What may have made the measure more palatable to the deeply divided House was that it did not come with the $1.2 billion price tag assigned the full RESTORE Act by the Congressional Budget Office, which would have added to the cost of the transportation bill.
That is because Scalise’s amendment would not divert money headed to the Treasury, like the full RESTORE Act would, but rather segregate the money into a separate fund within the Treasury.
“We need to secure the fines from the Deepwater Horizon disaster for Gulf Coast recovery before a settlement is reached, and this amendment starts that process,” Scalise said in a statement issued immediately after the vote. “I’m proud that we achieved this milestone and established a precedent for future votes on the full RESTORE Act.”
Agreeing on how to offset the cost of the full RESTORE Act legislation remains a sticking point. Landrieu has called for extending a per-barrel tax on oil drilling for three years but has said she is open to other suggestions.
Disagreement also centers on differences between the House and Senate versions of RESTORE. The House version would allow spending more of the penalty money on economic — as opposed to environmental — restoration. In other words, more of the money could be used to build boat ramps, highway interchanges and convention centers, instead of restoring wetlands.
During debate on the Scalise trust fund amendment, Rep. Cathy Castor (D-Fla.), who co-chairs the Gulf Coast Caucus with Scalise, a coalition formed specifically to advocate for sending the penalty money to the five states, went on record with her objections to the full version of the RESTORE Act awaiting consideration by the House.
“I’m going to have to urge everyone to vote no, but let’s not lose momentum here,” Castor said. “The problems with the RESTORE Act are many.”
Among them, she said, was that it does not focus on Gulfwide research and recovery, does not devote sufficient resources to long-term environmental monitoring and potentially duplicates the efforts of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, process.
But Castor also stepped out of the way, ceding her time to Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, one of several Louisiana lawmakers who spoke in favor of the Scalise amendment.
“We should not let the 200 million gallons of oil spilled and 11 lives that were lost open up an opportunity for a windfall to the American Treasury,” Richmond said.
He described the amendment as an important step forward.
“It’s not perfect,” Richmond said. “It’s not the end-all. But this is the best way right now to make sure that the sentiment is established.”
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) praised Scalise in a statement for “choreographing this strong vote.”
“It’s a very important step forward in advancing RESTORE, in modified form,” he said. “As a leading member of the Conference Committee on this highway bill, I’ll fight for inclusion of the full RESTORE language in the final version as a top priority.”
Landrieu also issued a statement commending Scalise and the Louisiana delegation.
“We are not going to stop until the RESTORE Act is passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the President,” Landrieu said.