04/30/2012 - It seems like there are few issues that can weather the current political storms to bring together a large bipartisan consensus in Congress. Yet, the U.S. Senate - in a vote last month hailed by members on both sides of the aisle - overwhelmingly passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation and infrastructure authorization bill by a bipartisan vote of 74-22. Included in the measure were vital provisions to fund environmental restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the 2010 oil spill and an ambitious program to support conservation projects in coastal communities around the country.
House and Senate leaders are negotiating a final transportation package. However, the fate of these crucial proposals to address the health of one of our nation's most valuable natural resources, our oceans, is far from certain.
By the numbers alone, the impact of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy is sobering. During the 87-day disaster in 2010, nearly 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf. It's also been estimated that the potential three-year loss of tourism revenue to Gulf coastal communities could surpass $22 billion, and scientists still are uncertain what the longterm ecological damage will be.
The Pew Environment Group commissioned a task force of 18 scientists to examine the issue of Gulf restoration. In a report published last September, the investigators found that the Deepwater Horizon blowout was just the most visible, recent problem. Chronic over fishing, poorly planned coastal development, and pollution - according to the researchers' final report - had already seriously degraded the area's ecological resilience. Consequently, to move toward effective long-term recovery, federal and state managers must apply a holistic approach to restoration across the region. A dedicated funding source and associated management mechanism are needed, though, to facilitate this change.
In March, the Senate did just that. The measure it passed - known as the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism coast Opportunities, and Revived Economy Act - would ensure that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines associated with the Deepwater Horizon spill are used to address the economic and ecological damage to the Gulf region. This proposal was added to the overall Senate transportation and infrastructure authorization bill by an overwhelming vote of 76-22.
Gulf communities aren't the only ones watching the outcome of the debate over the transportation measure. Also at stake is another bipartisan provision, the National Endowment for the Oceans. Co-sponsored by Sens. Olympia Snowe, RMaine, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., it would fund regional coastal improvement projects by using some of the interest derived from investment of Clean Water Act fines from the spill.
More specifically, the endowment would support activities such as fisheries management and coastal restoration through a system of grants to states, universities, nonprofit organizations, and other local institutions. And this program could have impacts far and wide, with 35 states potentially eligible for the program's benefits.
Our combined ocean and coastal areas economies contributed more than 2.6 million jobs and more than $222.7 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2009. Projects funded by the National Endowment for the Oceans would help promote the long-term health of these economic engines. Yet while there may be significant support for these two vital ocean proposals in Congress, it's uncertain whether House and Senate leaders will be able to overcome their differences on the larger bill to pass the provisions.
April marked the second anniversary of one of the largest environmental disasters in our nation's history. Passing the RESTORE Act and the National Endowment for the Oceans would be an excellent way for Congress to show that America hasn't forgotten the ongoing environmental and economic impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Chris Mann is a senior officer with Pew Environment Group and directs efforts to establish a comprehensive national ocean policy.