But all that being said, recovery is not yet complete — not by a long shot. It will be a long-term process. And the key to finishing the job over the long term is properly holding BP accountable and making sure that all of the different types of liability assessments go toward restoring the damaged Gulf Coast. This includes criminal and civil fines, and the latter must include both Natural Damage Resource Assessments (NRDA) and penalties under the Clean Water Act (CWA) as directed by the Restore Act.
We’ve already seen unprecedented criminal penalties assessed on BP, but securing civil monies that can help save our Louisiana Coast remains the most important part of the equation because of the much larger dollars that should be available to invest. I’ve urged the Obama administration to be equally aggressive on the civil fines as the criminal penalties, and to not let BP game the settlement process in any way to improperly lower its overall bill.
I’m afraid that may be BP’s strategy.
The NRDA process is the part of oil spill liability law that would force BP, in this case, to pay for clean-up and restoration efforts. In 2011 I wrote a bill that would have expedited payments through the NRDA payment process so that work to repair and restore fisheries, oyster beds and marshland could start immediately. BP agreed to provide $1 billion for early restoration projects through a similar process, but groundbreaking on much of the early restoration projects still hasn’t happened.
I’m concerned that BP is dragging its feet on NRDA, possibly so that a CWA/Restore settlement can be reached and used for crucial projects that NRDA should cover separately. If such a gaming of the settlement process is allowed, NRDA money from which Louisiana would be the greatest benefactor could disappear. That’s why I wrote Attorney General Eric Holder on Feb. 12, 2013, and specifically urged him to settle all categories of civil liability at the same time, including NRDA and CWA/ Restore.
The CWA/ Restore fines are very important too. But they need to be used for rebuilding the coast as outlined in the Restore Act. The separate NRDA penalties should be used for clean-up efforts that need to happen first. That’s how each law is intended to be used.
As I warned the attorney general, it’s certainly not in the best interest of affected Gulf states for BP’s CWA/Restore penalties to go to projects that BP should pay for under NRDA. Ideally, an agreement to expedite the NRDA projects would be negotiated prior to, or in conjunction with, the final decision on the rest of the civil penalties. Doing so would better ensure that the Gulf is provided the full compensation and recovery that the two oil spill laws clearly intend.
BP continues its aggressive public relations campaign that it will “make it right” for the Gulf Coast. For that to happen, the Obama administration needs to “get it right” in the structure of any BP settlement.
Vitter is ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.