by Kiley Kroh
Until today, it has been difficult to determine who was more dead-set on ignoring the effects of the BP oil disaster: Congress or the oil companies themselves. While Big Oil has gone right on beating its “Drill Baby Drill” drum, their allies in Washington have successfully blocked any attempts to change the permissive culture that’s allowed them to reap tens of billions of dollars in profits. But today, there is a glimmer of hope that Congress may yet act to right some of the wrongs that have been visited upon the Gulf Coast.
The RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, a bill that would dedicate 80% of Clean Water Act fines charged to BP directly to the five Gulf Coast states in order to immediately begin the process of ecological and economic recovery, passed easily out of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee by a voice vote. Several provisions in the bill are consistent with recommendations put forth by the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America in the February 2011 report, “Beyond Recovery,” including:
- Establishment of a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to ensure that local stakeholders have representation in directing the distribution of funds;
- Creation of research “centers of excellence” that will assist in commercializing science and technology innovations in water management and coastal protection/restoration to help promote diversification into new sustainable industries and jobs across the Gulf;
- Preferences for firms agreeing to hire local workers and for use of local contractors in restoration project procurement;
- Provisions to develop strategies that address the specific needs of socially and economically vulnerable communities in the region.
That bill will now move on for consideration by the full Senate. This is not uncommon practice. Last year, several bills passed out of Committees in the Senate that weren’t even voted on by the full body, much less passed into law. The RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, however, is a truly viable piece of legislation; the measure is sponsored by 9 of the 10 Gulf Coast Senators, including 7 of the 8 Republicans.
Kate Gordon, Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress, explains:
“By moving this bipartisan legislation forward today, this Congress demonstrates that helping Gulf Coast communities recover from the worst oil spill in U.S. history is a top priority across party lines. The Center for American Progress praises Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer and the nine Gulf state senators for their efforts to provide this region with the tools it needs not only to mitigate the ecological damage it has experienced, but to turn the region into a leader in the field of coastal restoration.
This is not only an environmental imperative, it is an economic one. We hope that this legislation is brought to the floor as quickly as possible with provisions that a majority of funding will address large-scale environmental restoration needs and preferences be given for local hiring and socioeconomically vulnerable communities, as recommended in the CAP-Oxfam report “Beyond Recovery” – in order to get the Gulf back to work, promote the growth of new industries, and build a foundation for a new economic future.”
Currently, the Gulf Coast is home to over 80 percent of the United States’ annual coastal erosion and almost half of its annual wetlands loss – continually diminishing billions of dollars in natural flood protection and environmental services for coastal communities. Further, the damage wrought by the spill continues to threaten industries such as tourism and fisheries that drive local economies. The RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act will direct the necessary funds to rebuild these critical ecosystems and industries, while simultaneously investing in the development of a local workforce to ensure those impacted most by the spill are able to gain the skills they need to find good-paying jobs.
As “Beyond Recovery” emphasized, economic and environmental recovery are not mutually exclusive. In fact, investing in wetlands and coastal restoration creates nearly six times as many jobs as investments in oil and gas.
While today’s vote marks a significant first step toward economic and environmental recovery for the Gulf Coast, the real test will be whether Congress is able to set aside its differences and prove that it can still get things done for the benefit of the American people.
Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress. CAP’s Michael Conathan and Jorge Madrid contributed to this report.