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As task force prepares oil spill report, questions arise on who will pay to restore the gulf

More than a year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a federal group stands ready to unveil an ambitious plan to repair the damage. It's not intended to be another report that just sits on a shelf.

"We're not here to write a strategy —- we're here to get things done," said John Hankinson, who chairs the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.

But the federal task force, which is supposed to unveil its recommendations in early December, will be unable to answer two crucial questions: How many billions of dollars will it cost to fix the gulf, and, more importantly, where will that money come from?

A bipartisan group in Congress wants BP and the other companies in charge of Deepwater Horizon to pay the tab.

Bills have been filed in both the House and Senate calling for 80 percent of any fines levied as punishment for the oil spill to be directed to restoration projects along the gulf coast. By some estimates that could bring $20 billion —- money that, under current law, would go to the U.S. Treasury with no direction to spend a dime of it on restoring the gulf coast.

Redirecting the money to restoration has support from the Obama administration and the National Oil Spill Commission headed by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Administrator William K. Reilly.

Environmental activists from the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy and the Ocean Conservancy all support sending the money to restoring the gulf coast.

"We owe the gulf," contended Phillippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of famed undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, now working for the environmental group Oceana. Cousteau made a splash last year by diving into the still-spreading oil spill with a TV camera to show ABC's Good Morning America viewers how there was more damage than what was visible on the water's surface.

"We need to put the locals back to work and provide them with jobs, say in wetlands restoration," Cousteau said. "This bill will determine the course of the tragedy, and whether the oil spill will destroy the gulf or save it."

But if you ask Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., if any of those bills will pass this session, he says, "Got a coin? We'll flip it."

Some members of Congress, not convinced the oil spill did any real damage to the gulf, contend any fines should go to reducing the deficit.

As a result, Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who will convene a committee hearing on one of the bills Dec. 7, finds the prospects for passage remain uncertain.

"We'll see," he said. "We're trying to resolve all the issues and get it done."

Even if those bills were to pass tomorrow, though, it would still be a while before any money would be available. Although the Justice Department has issued a notice of violation, it has yet to take BP or any of the other parties involved in the oil spill to court, much less press them to pay any fines.

BP has promised to put up $1 billion in advance, Hankinson said, but so far that hasn't been forthcoming either. And given that the price tag is likely to be multiples of that figure, even when it does arrive it won't go very far.

So where else can the restoration task force turn for funding for its many projects?

To the federal agencies already involved in the disaster cleanup, Hankinson said — the same federal agencies that are already strapped for cash and under pressure from Congress to cut their budgets.

"That doesn't seem very plausible in this climate," Hankinson conceded. As a result, he predicted, "we'll run out of money in the short term before we run out of needs."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

As task force prepares oil spill report, questions arise on who will pay to restore the gulf 11/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 24, 2011 10:35pm]

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