It has now been more than three years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing eleven men and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Just how many barrels is the subject of a federal trial currently underway in New Orleans, the results of which will have a long-term impact on the future of the Gulf Coast.
While BP, the company that operated the Deepwater Horizon, has already admitted misconduct and paid a record $4 billion in criminal fines, this trial will determine the civil penalties the company must pay under the Clean Water Act. The total civil fine, depending on the court’s findings, could top $18 billion.
Under the terms of the RESTORE Act, a law passed in 2012 with broad bipartisan support, 80 percent of the civil fines paid by BP and its partners will be deposited into a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund to strengthen the Gulf Coast’s resiliency to future disasters, both natural and man-made.
While the RESTORE Act isn’t perfect, it’s got a lot that believers in free markets and limited government can appreciate. As is frequently the case, the devil is in the details: It will be tempting for special interests to divert funds away from useful spending that benefits the economy and the region to boondoggles and pork barrel projects.
That’s why it’s critical for conservatives both along the Gulf Coast and across the country to pay close attention as the RESTORE Act is implemented–and to keep pressure on officials not to let the funds administered by the act become just another source for political patronage.
The RESTORE Act embraces a number of important conservative principles. At the top of the list is a reliance on state and local governments for policy making and implementation. Rather than trying to direct billions of dollars from Washington, the RESTORE Act puts the majority of the funds under the control of state and local governments.
Under the terms of the act, 90 percent of the funds are available either directly to state and local governments or through a joint federal-state Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to fund a variety of projects and programs to improve the ecology and economy of the affected areas. This puts decision-making closer to the people whose lives and livelihoods were impacted by the oil spill.
Additionally, the RESTORE Act doesn’t grow the government. There’s nothing in the law that permanently increases the size or scope of any government entity. After disasters, there is frequently a tendency to create new government entities or grow spending on existing programs.
The RESTORE Act aims admirably to avoid that temptation by funding specific projects for limited duration. Because the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund is funded by a one-time fine rather than taxpayer dollars, there is no future stream of revenues to spend. Once the money is gone, it’s gone.
Finally, the act allows for the kind of pro-growth, pro-environment investment that conservatives can embrace–at least if it’s implemented properly. The health of the Gulf Coast economy is inexorably tied to the environment. Coastal recreation is a $20 billion a year industry and accounts for more than 620,000 jobs; the gulf’s commercial fishing industry generates more than $10 billion in sales annually.
The RESTORE Act provides resources to remedy damage from the Deepwater Horizon spill and strengthen the natural environment of the Gulf Coast. This includes projects like rebuilding wetlands, which helps reduce the cost of future natural disasters, and restoring fisheries and marine habitats. These are projects that are good for the economy, good for sportsmen and good for the environment.
Of course, whether the RESTORE Act lives up to its potential depends on how policymakers in the Gulf Coast implement it. Too many groups, especially on the left, see the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund as a piggy bank to implement a laundry list of unrelated and ineffective policies.
That would be a historic missed opportunity, and one that the Gulf Coast can’t afford.
A belief in federalism and local control is a mainstay of American conservative thought, and for good reason. The RESTORE Act is an excellent opportunity to put that belief into action and show Washington that states can, both on their own and in concert, develop and execute economically sound and environmentally sustainable policies.