RESTORE Act could jump start coastal efforts, but money is not in the bank

The Q-4000 processes oil from the Macondo well in this July 10, 2010 (FILE)
The Q-4000 processes oil from the Macondo well in this July 10, 2010 (FILE)

New Orleans, La.- Louisiana's efforts to battle land loss have been as starved for funding as the marsh is for fresh water.

Friday, Congress laid the framework for some vary large pay days in the future, overwhelmingly approving the RESTORE act.

The plan, tucked safely inside a massive Transportation bill, also includes $1.5 billion for Louisiana roads, bridges and infrastructure over the next two years.

However, most of the attention along the Gulf coast has been on the language involving environmental penalties from the 2010 Macondo well blow out and the potential bonanza.

Friday, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La.,  said the funds "will help jumpstart, in a significant way, coastal restoration in Louisiana."

Supporters of the bill noted Louisiana has the plan for stitching back together barrier islands, ridges and marsh—a $50 billion master plan for the coast—but it lacked the money.

What the RESTORE Act Does:

Under current law, BP and other companies responsible found responsible for 2010 spill would pay penalties under the Clean Water Act for each barrel of oil spilled.

The penalties could run anywhere from $5 billion to $20 billion.

Without Congressional action, the penalties would flow into the government's general fund.

Instead, 60% of the penalties under the RESTORE act will be allocated to a new body called the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

Half of those funds (30% of the total) would be used to implement a comprehensive federal environmental plan.

The other half (30%) will be distributed to Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and spent according to each state's individual plans.

Another 35% of the penalties will be available to Gulf Coast states for environmental and economic restoration.

The remaining 5% will be dedicated to science and monitoring of the Gulf Coast ecosystem restoration and fisheries.

After previous large spills—both the 1979 Ixtoc blowout in the southern Gulf and the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker crash in Alaska—scientists bemoaned the lack of scientific study.

In Alaska, for example, the critical herring fishery was virtually lost a couple years after the Exxon disaster. Since there was limited regular monitoring of the spill's effects on Prince William Sound, there was no way to determine scientifically the role the Valdez may or may not have played in the fishery's collapse.

Fifty Percent of the accrued interest on the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust fund will fund science and monitoring programs.

Since much of the money is theoretically aimed at repairing environmental impacts of the spill, Louisiana would seem poised to cash in under the act.

However, some environmental groups have already raised concerns about the potential for local and state politicians to steer money away from restoration efforts to "economic development" projects.

The Gulf Restoration Network, a vocal supporter of the legislation, called its passage a "satisfying and important step forward."

However, the group noted the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council will need to "work collaboratively towards a sustainable Gulf and not fall prey to the pork-barrel politics of the past."

The governors of the five Gulf coast states will each have a seat on the council.