Gulf states need their fair share now, not seven years from now

The devastating BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is an absolute tragedy for those of us who live in states along the coast, but hopefully it has awakened on the national level a greater appreciation for the risks our states take for the benefit of Americans everywhere. That recognition of what we are suffering through right now should stir Congress to take action immediately to accelerate and expand revenue sharing from offshore oil and gas development.

For years, our states along the Gulf fought to convince Congress that we should get a share of the oil and gas wealth being mined in federal waters off our shores. Just as states with land production get compensated for the extraction of their resources owned by the federal government, it’s only fair for states along the Gulf to receive compensation for the extraction of resources right off their shores.

Passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) in 2006 was an acknowledgement by the federal government that there needs to be some type of parity between how onshore and offshore royalties are treated. GOMESA sets aside 37.5 percent of the royalties from oil and natural gas drilling in federal waters for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — the states that currently allow such drilling.

That’s the good news. The bad news is GOMESA does not fully take effect until 2017.  Currently energy-producing Gulf states receive only a paltry amount from a small section of the Gulf. Not only should Congress accelerate full implementation of GOMESA, but the revenue sharing under this act should be expanded to include royalties from all oil and natural gas leases in the Gulf, not just from new leases that began after 2006.

We simply can’t wait seven more years for the resources that can help save our imperiled coast. Alabama and other oil and gas producing coastal states should start receiving that 37.5 percent share promised under GOMESA immediately as well as a share of the revenue from all the leases.

Right now, our states share only minimally in the wealth that flows from these wells into federal coffers. Yet, we shoulder 100 percent of the risks. Now all the world gets to see just how very real those risks are. They haven’t been exaggerated by Gulf states. If anything, they may have been underestimated.

We now know there is not enough boom, there are not enough skimmers, there is not enough protection immediately available for our coastal communities when things go horribly wrong. That’s another reason why Congress should change GOMESA and give our states the increased share of funding now. Our states could take some of the GOMESA funds and use them to be prepared for future disasters rather than having to wait on some oil company or the federal government for needed resources.

With proper resources, our coast could be better protected with assets staged in our states, just as we when it comes to hurricane preparedness.

Increased revenue sharing would allow us to repair barrier islands so we can protect our estuaries. It could be used to make sure we have housed in our states the booming that’s necessary and skimmers immediately available to protect our shores.

For example, if Alabama already had this money, by now we could have fixed a mile-wide breach in Dauphin Island caused by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. That breach provides an opening for oil to flow into some of our most sensitive estuaries, marshland and oyster beds. We’re filling in the breach now with $15 million provided by BP, but if the increased GOMESA revenue sharing was already in effect, we could have fixed it years ago.

GOMESA provides a significant source of funding that states can use to undertake such projects on their own. Projects that will protect this vital region that the nation depends on for energy. Projects that will help our states recover from this disaster.

We can’t wait until 2017 to protect this region and repair the damage, nor should we have to. Our states that take on all the risks should start receiving their fair share now. It’s time for all members of Congress to recognize, like our Gulf state delegations do, that the time to act is now. With the largest environmental disaster in American history washing up on our shores, no member of Congress should be able to argue with any credibility that we have to wait seven more years. That’s just not right.

Gov. Riley is the 52nd Governor of Alabama and was first elected in 2002.