Greens and Gulf Coast officials push Congress for fund for oil spill cleanup

Environmental groups and local governments on the Gulf Coast have stepped up their lobbying push for legislation that would redirect federal funds toward the cleanup of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Environmental Defense Action Fund and the National Wildlife Federation have both hired new lobbyists to secure passage of the Restore Act, according to disclosure records. Gulf Coast officials, meanwhile, have been coordinating fly-in visits to Washington this month to lobby for passage.

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The effort seems to be paying off. A version of the Restore Act was included in a piece of the transportation bill that the House passed earlier this month, raising hopes it could be included in a final package that passes both chambers. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked up a different version of the bill last year.

The Restore Act would redirect 80 percent of the funding from environmental fines and penalties taken primarily from BP — which leased the oil rig that contributed to the spill — and direct it to a specific Gulf Coast recovery fund, rather than to the federal government.

The pot of money could be substantial, as the companies deemed responsible for the spill are likely to face billions of dollars in penalties. Under the Clean Water Act, BP could be forced to pay from $5 billion to $21 billion for the 4.9 million barrels of oil estimated to have spewed into the Gulf.

Grover Robinson, the District 4 commissioner for Escambia County, Fla., said communities on the Gulf Coast need the additional money because the damage from the spill will play out for years.

 “Everybody thought [the day before the Gulf spill] that the Exxon-Valdez was the largest oil spill we could have. On April 20, we saw that could happen 12, 13, 14 times greater than that at once,” Robinson said. “Really, when you dive down below the four states, you see how local communities were seriously impacted by this spill, but we won’t know the entire effects until much later.”

Robinson was part of a fly-in visit to Washington this month that included more than 20 local officials from Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. Led by the Florida Association of Counties, the trip gave officials a chance to meet with lawmakers face to face about the bill.

Escambia County had the help of the lobby firm MWW Group with the Restore Act. Robinson said he could not figure out the “inner workings” of Capitol Hill on his own and needed a lobbyist to help him with the process.  

“In county government, we really don’t deal with a partisan situation. We needed somebody to help us understand whom we can talk to. We needed to understand how Washington works, and it’s not the same as our county,” Robinson said.

Lobbyists working on the bill said it’s vital for the towns that were hit hard by the spill.

“It was a significant impact for its tourism industry more than anything else. People were watching the oil flow out for months on TV,” said Jim Davenport, a partner at Alcalde & Fay.

Davenport’s firm has been lobbying for Okaloosa County, Fla., since 2007, and was involved with the fly-in visit earlier this month. He said his client supports both the House  and Senate versions of the act.  

The House amendment of the legislation to the highway bill only sets up the trust fund for the Gulf, while the Senate version would establish the trust fund and set up a framework for distributing the money, according to lobbyists.

“Obviously, in a perfect world we would like the full legislation. But we will take one step at a time,” Davenport said.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) added the Restore Act amendment to the highway bill and said the provision would be a significant step forward. 

“That was the first time that you’ve had any kind of sense in Congress of what should happen, and the consensus in Congress was that the bulk of that money ought to stay among the Gulf Coast states so that we can restore the damage that was done by BP and the other parties,” Scalise said.

Prominent lawmakers like Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), along with the Obama administration, back the effort to redirect money taken from environmental fines back to the Gulf Coast. At a House Energy and Commerce hearing Tuesday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson thanked Scalise for working on the bill.

“It is extremely important that those resources be returned to the Gulf of Mexico, so I thank you for your leadership,” Jackson said.

Environmental groups are also behind the bill.

In late January, the Environmental Defense Action Fund paid for a two-day, $30,000 radio ad blitz in Florida before the GOP primary in support of the Restore Act. That followed other radio ads last year paid for by a coalition of environmental groups that aired on conservative radio stations in five different Gulf Coast states. 

The Environmental Defense Action Fund hired Patton Boggs on Jan. 1 this year to work on the bill, according to lobbying disclosure records. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) hired Tracy Holiday later that month to lobby for the legislation.

Adam Kolton, director of the NWF’s national advocacy center, said he is optimistic about the chances for the legislation.

“We are in an environment right now that almost nothing gets done. It’s enormously frustrating,” Kolton said. “Of anything we’re working, we have more reason to be optimistic about this than anything else. This is a bipartisan effort, and we’ve been working very hard to shore up support.”

Several oil companies, such as Anadarko Petroleum, BP and Chevron, reported lobbying on the bill at some point in 2011, according to disclosure records. Contacted by The Hill, the companies either said they had no position on the bill or declined to comment.

In an email, John Christiansen, Anadarko’s external communications director, said that the company does not have a position on the bill but is “monitoring its progress as it moves through the legislative process.”

Lloyd Avram, a Chevron spokesman, said “the Restore Act is important for the Gulf states and its ecosystem, and the Gulf of Mexico is of vital importance to the U.S. Chevron has numerous facilities and employees in the Gulf region.”

Asked to clarify the company’s position on the bill, Avram didn’t respond to questions. BP declined to comment.

Robinson of Escambia County said he supports both the House and Senate versions of the bill, but said above all, Congress needs to act.

“Despite all the pictures, our community has not been made whole,” he said.

Ben Geman and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.

This story was corrected at 12:16 p.m. to reflect which members of the Senate are on record as supporters of the RESTORE Act.