Lawmakers conducting first review of plans for Gulf Coast oil-spill recovery

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The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday will hold the first hearing to determine how money being collected from those responsible for the Deepwater Horizon explosion is helping affected Gulf Coast states recover from the oil spill – or, at least, how well-prepared officials are in their plans to spend the money most effectively.

More specifically, the Commerce Committee wants to know how officials plan to spend the money collected from fines and penalties levied on those responsible for the oil spill more than three years ago.  The total amount of federal fines expected to be collected from BP and other responsible parties runs from $3.4 billion up to $17.6 billion, depending on the outcome of ongoing litigation. 

But regardless of the total amount, 80 cents of every dollar must go into a trust fund Congress set up last year under the RESTORE Act, which is intended to help the Gulf Coast states with environmental restoration, economic recovery and tourism promotion.  About a third of the trust fund money – 30 percent – goes to ecosystem restoration.  And given the current estimated range of BP’s civil fines, Gulf Coast ecosystem restoration could receive between $918 million and $4.8 billion.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was a lead proponent of the RESTORE Act and will chair Thursday’s Commerce hearing examining key plans for the use of the trust fund money.  At center stage will be a plan by the U.S. Commerce Department outlining a framework for spending and a list of possible ecosystem restoration projects all along the Gulf Coast, including Florida. 

BP has already given each of the affected Gulf Coast states $100 million apart from what it will pay in any civil fines that will go into the trust fund.  And Florida has used some of that money on number of projects including several boat ramps, a dune restoration project and jobs to protect and restore shorebird and sea turtle nesting habitats.  Additionally, the state has allocated another $58 million of the $100 million for the following proposed projects subject to public comment and final approval:

Florida Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery/ Enhancement Center, Escambia County – $20 million;

Florida Artificial Reef Creation and Restoration, Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay counties – $11.4 million;

Pensacola Bay Living Shoreline, Escambia County – $11 million;

Florida Oyster Reef Restoration Escambia, Santa Rosa, Bay and Franklin counties – $5.4 million;

Scallop Enhancement for Increased Recreational Fishing Opportunity in the Florida Panhandle, Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties – $3 million;

Florida Bay Seagrass Recovery Project, Gulf, Franklin and Bay counties – $2.7 million;

Big Lagoon State Park Boat Ramp Improvement, Escambia County – $1.5 million;

Bob Sikes Pier Restoration, Escambia County – $1 million;

Shell Point Beach Nourishment, Wakulla County – $880,000;

Florida Cat Point Living Shoreline Project, Franklin County – $800,000;

Perdido Key Boardwalk Improvements, Escambia County – $600,000; and,

Perdido Key Dune Restoration, Escambia County – $600,000.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.