Looking Ahead on Anniversary of Oil Spill

April 20, 2015

Exactly five years ago, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 Americans and set in motion the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.  For 87 days, more than three million barrels of crude oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and toward the shores of five states.

For coastal communities in Mississippi and elsewhere, the spill was a devastating setback, arriving less than five years after Hurricane Katrina.  Once again, major disruptions to key tourism and seafood industries put people out of work and local economies on hold.  A temporary moratorium from the President on offshore drilling in the Gulf further compounded these economic repercussions.  Meanwhile, marine ecosystems endured unprecedented circumstances, and countless families saw their way of life completely uprooted.

Like the response to Katrina, Americans were quick to offer assistance in the aftermath of the spill.  Thousands of volunteers and cleanup crews selflessly devoted time and energy to help.  Others worked to raise awareness about the need for reforms to prevent a disaster of this magnitude from happening again.  We continue to be grateful for their outpouring of support. 

A full recovery will be difficult – taking years, if not decades – but local leaders and residents are determined to succeed.  Dozens of restoration projects have long been underway, rebuilding critical habitats like oyster reefs and wetlands as well as infrastructure and recreational attractions.  By targeting both environmental and economic needs, these projects are poised not only to bring back what was lost but also make the Gulf Coast even better than before.

This mission, however, is far from finished.  Years of litigation with BP over civil penalties have yet to be resolved.  Under the Clean Water Act, the parties responsible for the disaster are subject to pollution fines of up to $4,300 per barrel spilled.  If the courts decide to assess the maximum penalty, the company could face $13.7 billion in charges.

Those of us representing Gulf Coast states in Congress recognized the importance of making sure these fines are used where they are needed most.  The 2012 passage of the RESTORE Act sent a powerful message to Gulf Coast communities that they will have a voice in the recovery process.  Under the bipartisan legislation, 80 percent of the civil penalties will go to affected states, giving local leaders the flexibility and authority to put their most critical priorities first.  Without RESTORE, none of these penalties would have been used to alleviate the harm from Deepwater Horizon, going instead solely to the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to be used for future spills.

Like many Americans, I am hopeful that the courts will deliver a ruling soon, giving states more certainty regarding the resources available for their projects.  Since RESTORE became law, states and federal agencies have joined forces on the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to put together a comprehensive plan that equitably addresses the entire region’s environmental and economic needs.  Last year, the U.S. Treasury moved forward with necessary rules outlining the process for states and municipalities to apply for grants supported by RESTORE funds.  The missing piece is the sum to be paid by BP.

We do not know the long-term effects of what happened on April 20, 2010, and it may be some time before we fully understand all that was lost.  But we do know that the Gulf Coast is slowly but steadily regaining ground.  In Mississippi, for example, the seafood industry has seen a rise in economic growth and jobs in recent years.  As for energy exploration, analysts expect deepwater oil production in the Gulf to grow rapidly, possibly reaching a peak next year.

For tens of millions of Americans, the Gulf Coast more than just a place to live, work, and visit.  The Gulf of Mexico and its approximately 1,600 miles of shoreline are a true U.S. treasure where productive fisheries, recreational sports, bountiful energy resources, and diverse species coexist.  Taken together, these assets generate an economic output greater than that of most nations.

America thrives when our Gulf Coast thrives.  We have an opportunity to make things right, and we should seize it.  Five years has not diminished our willpower or resolve to see that the Coast is made whole again.

This op-ed appeared on Fox News on April 20, 2015.