April marks five years since an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon sunk the mobile drilling rig and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. While most Americans likely have moved on from the incident, many residents of Gulf Coast states like Alabama have not.
The sheer magnitude of the economic losses and environmental harm are still being calculated to this day. The long-term impacts, particularly for the environment, may not be fully understood for quite some time. Obviously, Alabama has a real and immediate interest in offsetting as much of that harm as possible.
Congress has provided the state a unique opportunity to address those problems, while demonstrating the ability to administer federal funds effectively and efficiently. In 2012, it passed the Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act. The law redirects federal fines and penalties from the Deepwater Horizon spill in a manner that affords local and regional officials more control over the potentially vast number of needed restoration projects.
If Alabama is able to rehabilitate its Gulf Coast under the RESTORE Act, it may set an example for future federal spending that coordinates with state and local governments, rather than simply dispatching taxpayer dollars from Washington.
Although federal officials will directly allocate some RESTORE Act funds, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (Gulf Coast Council), comprised of state governors and federal agency officials, has discretion over a second pool of money. Moreover, the five impacted states have authority over a third pool of resources.
While Gov. Robert Bentley will represent the state on the Gulf Coast Council, the real opportunity for Alabama is in the direct spending administered by the state. In spite of the temptation to use RESTORE Act funds to alleviate the state’s budget challenges, Alabama must demonstrate an ability to balance the priorities of economic and environmental restoration responsibly.
Certain projects, like flood mitigation in coastal communities, may have both positive economic and environmental effects. As such, they should be prioritized. Where environmental projects like species rehabilitation and preservation are warranted, they should be balanced with positive economic investments in the area, like dredging in the Port of Mobile.
Most importantly, Alabama must continue to operate its state council as transparently as possible. Project selection criteria should be clear, expectations and deliverable metrics for projects should be publicly accessible and the state must fight waste and fraud that often plague spending of this magnitude.
The RESTORE Act presents a tremendous chance for Alabama to both rebuild its coast and show the nation how states can serve as prudent partners to improve federal spending. Alabama should not take that opportunity lightly.