Column: Establish trust fund for coastal recovery

America's oceans need a trust fund to manage and protect them. At the turn of the 21st century, Congress appointed a farsighted Commission on Ocean Policy that came to just that conclusion.

But it never happened. And that's a shame because that could have created a Gulf of Mexico in which the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster would have been less likely to occur — and a marine world that could have recovered quicker once it did.

But it's not too late. Congress can still adopt the commission's "Ocean Blueprint" and its main recommendation, an Ocean Policy Trust Fund. Here is what's at stake.

The five gulf states, including Florida, rely on roughly $150 billion that national and international tourists spend in the area, which employs almost 2 million people in travel and tourism each year. More broadly, the United States controls more coastal and open-ocean water area than it does land.

However, in 2001, 23 percent of our nation's estuarine areas were contaminated and unsuitable for swimming, fishing and supporting marine life. These issues were not caused by Deepwater Horizon but by less conspicuous problems that environmental management organizations face regularly — among them, runoff pollution after rainstorms and harmful algae blooms near coastal cities.

All of these sources of marine degradation, however, could be substantially reduced if Congress would reconsider establishing a trust fund to pay for it.

On Jan. 3, Transocean, the oil-drilling company that owned the Deepwater Horizon rig leased to BP, settled with the U.S. Department of Justice and agreed to pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal fines.

In accordance with the RESTORE Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, 80 percent ($1 billion) of this money will go into a Restoration Trust Fund to be divided among Gulf Coast states for recovery from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Another $100 million from the settlement will go into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for future oil spill damage.

Unfortunately, almost three years passed since the tragedy before these reparations were decided upon, and the sum will be distributed through payments over another five years. So, it's a lot of money, but it's also taken a lot of time.

More needs to be done to manage marine resources wisely and plan to avoid disaster, rather than continue to govern in crisis mode and rely on guilty parties to make amends long after the oil has settled.

Thanks to Congress passing and the president enacting the Oceans Act of 2000, we already have a recommendation for a well-structured trust fund and the source of monies to fill it. That act led President George Bush to appoint 16 members to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Among many recommendations the group delivered to the president in 2004, an Ocean Policy Trust Fund was suggested for funding ocean policy and management with a portion set aside for use by all coastal states.

Initial funding would come from $6.8 billion per year (2012 data) in Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas revenues, virtually all of which come from Gulf of Mexico activities. Up to $1 billion of this money has gone to other programs in the past, and the rest is credited to miscellaneous receipts of the Treasury, used for other governmental activities, or counted against the deficit.

Additional sources of funding in the future could come from new offshore renewable energy, aquaculture, bio-prospecting and other industries that take advantage of our public marine resources, which we entrust to our government to manage.

This money should be disbursed to coastal states and agencies to support improved ocean and coastal management, based on allocation determined by Congress and the National Ocean Council.

The mandated distribution of Transocean fines for coastal restoration, the rare bipartisan ratification of the RESTORE Act and the establishment of instruments such as the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund prove that our government makes a priority of disaster mitigation and coastal recovery. But shouldn't policy be driven, not by mere restoration after the disaster, but by management and preparation that prevents it in the first place?

It's time for Congress and the president to establish an Ocean Policy Trust Fund as recommended by their blue-ribbon commission to protect our life and property properly.

Matt McCarthy, a graduate of the University of Florida, is in the Marine Science doctoral program at the University of South Florida and can be reached at mjm8@mail.usf.edu. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Establish trust fund for coastal recovery 02/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 4:29pm]

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