Early next year, a federal judge will decide how large a fine BP must pay for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. No matter what the judge decides, BP will pay one of the largest Clean Water Act fines in history. And this will have ramifications for Alabama’s Gulf Coast for decades to come, as will choices made in Montgomery and in the state’s coastal communities.
This is because, under the RESTORE Act, a 2012 law co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., these fines won’t primarily go to Washington. Instead, Congress decided to send 80 percent of the funds to the Gulf Coast states to invest in their economies and environments.
The RESTORE Act is a potent tool for Alabama. But for its promise to come to fruition, funds have to be spent wisely and in a way that benefits the state’s economy and environment.
Alabama’s coastal environment and coastal economy are inherently interconnected. Coastal tourism supports 53,000 jobs, and tourists visiting the coast spend more than $3.6 billion annually—a third of the total tourism dollars in the state. Wildlife tourism is a big part of that; some 2.3 million people come to Alabama every year to hunt, fish and watch wildlife. And that doesn’t even account for the state’s billion-dollar commercial fishing industry.
Concern about Alabama’s coastal environment doesn’t come at the expense of a strong economy. Rather, the two support one another.
If Alabama wants to ensure that RESTORE Act funds do the most good for the state’s coast, it is imperative that money is spent efficiently and effectively. This requires good processes to decide which projects get funded—and which ones do not.
To maximize long-term benefits to Alabama’s coast, RESTORE Act funds should be spent on public goods that benefit the communities that suffered in the aftermath of the oil spill. This means investing in projects like flood protection infrastructure, barrier island and wetlands preservation, and oyster reef restoration.
Many of these projects will reduce the cost of future natural disasters like floods–welcome news for flood insurance policyholders, some of whom have recently seen significant premium increases.
Because selecting the right ways to spend RESTORE Act funds is so important, the state needs to ensure that the media, good government watchdogs, and the general public can oversee decisions about how to allocate and spend the funds. That means that the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, the state commission charged with deciding how to spend RESTORE Act dollars, must operate in a radically transparent fashion.
Therefore, all potential projects receiving RESTORE Act funding should be posted online before decisions are finalized. Because this is a one-time windfall that Alabama is unlikely to see again any time soon, decisions made today will have ramifications for generations. That makes transparency—and the public deliberation and oversight it encourages—all the more important.
Ultimately, Alabama might consider following Louisiana’s lead by crafting a long-term coastal plan that ties together economic and environmental considerations, including flood protection and storm mitigation. Such a plan can help direct spending not just with RESTORE Act funds but also in the future. The 2010 report by Alabama’s Coastal Recovery Commission is a step in the right direction, but a meaningful plan would bore down onto the project level, costing out projects, eliminating some ideas and considering how different projects and policies interact.
Alabama’s coast has a vital role to play in the state’s economy, and the RESTORE Act provides a unique opportunity to make strategic, one-time investments in the coast. It is up to Alabama’s Gulf Coast Recovery Council to ensure these investments are made thoughtfully and in the long-term interest of the state.