BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. NELSON of Florida. Mr. President, last week, we passed some significant legislation, and it was one little glimpse of a bright shining moment of bipartisanship. The overall Transportation bill passed overwhelmingly. The magnificent leadership of the chairman of the committee, Senator Boxer, and the ranking member, Senator Inhofe, was a good example of how government, in general, and this institution, the Senate, should operate to get things done. We went through the amendatory process, and I noticed the two leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee fought off all the amendments that would have been killer amendments. They accepted some they believed strengthened the bill, and then we passed the bill seventy-four to nineteen. So it was overwhelming and it was bipartisan.
As a part of the process of that bill, several months ago, when the Transportation bill was on the Senate floor, I had the privilege of offering an amendment--again, bipartisan--to restore the Gulf of Mexico after the effects of the BP oilspill. That emanated from the fact that we have a fine that will be levied by a Federal judge in New Orleans. The law allows for the judge to assess a fine per barrel of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico.
In this case, we are talking about some real money. We are talking about almost 5 million barrels spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. The fine could be anywhere from a $5 billion fine all the way up to a $20 billion fine. So the question became: Once the fine is determined and approved by the court, where is that money going to go? The Gulf State Senators argued we should be able to have this come back to help the people and the environment of the gulf who were harmed.
There are so many effects, and we do not know what is going to be the ultimate result of all of this, particularly on the health of the gulf.
Five million barrels in the gulf is a lot of oil. The question is, the natural processes of the bacteria in the water that consume oil that naturally leak through the ocean floor--is the gulf so overwhelmed with all that oil that the bacteria are not able to consume it? Since this came from a ruptured well 5,000 feet below the surface of the water, how much oil is still down there, where it is hard to get any kind of research done because of the depth and the pressure.
That is what we need to know. We need to know for the future and we need to know for all the people who have their livelihood by the gulf, be it the seafood industry--but that not only affects the gulf. The gulf provides seafood for the entire country.
I am coming here to say we have an incredible success in a bipartisan way. I remind the Presiding Officer that we passed that amendment on to the Transportation bill, the RESTORE the Gulf of Mexico Act, in this Chamber 76 to 22. It was a huge bipartisan vote. Last week was a time to celebrate, and it was a time to celebrate for our whole country for a lot of reasons.
Yesterday, I went back to the shores of the gulf to share with the people what the specifics are of the legislation we passed and, once the court decides what the fine is, how that money is going to flow and what it is going to do for our people to improve their economies and the environment and for the long-term outlook of the health of the gulf. I wish to bring this to the attention of the Senate because the gulf doesn't just belong to the gulf coast counties of five Gulf States; it belongs to all Americans, and the President signed it into law last Friday.
I wish to thank those people in the Senate, in the House, and the President for signing it, a wide array of staff and stakeholders, the cities and the counties whose tireless efforts led to the enactment of the RESTORE Act. It aims to make sure the gulf does recover.
The chorus of support behind the success of this bill is enormous, and it would take me until the next Congress to thank everyone. But in addition to Senator Boxer and Senator Inhofe, I wish to mention the spark plug behind this whole effort was Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose State has suffered mightily. Senator Shelby and Senator Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, who helped us come up with sources of revenue that we had to have to satisfy the General Accounting Office, Senator Whitehouse, all these Senators were involved. Indeed, when we filed the bill 1 year ago, we had Senators from all 5 Gulf States as cosponsors, another display of bipartisan cooperation.
Think back to 2 years ago when this disaster began. It was about 10 at night on April 20, 2010, 52 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Macondo 252 oil well suddenly kicked, leading to an explosive blowout that claimed the lives of 11 Americans. For the next 87 days, almost 5 million barrels of crude oil gushed into the gulf.
Fishermen pulled the gear off their boats and replaced it with booms and skimmers, tourists canceled their vacations, waiters came to work to find that there were no customers, and the oil continued to coat the marshes that are the nursery habitat for juvenile shrimp and so many of the other critters that spawn in and around the marshes. Some of the beaches that draw tourists every summer were coated. Even for those beaches that did not have oil, the perception was that there was oil on our beaches and the tourists did not come and it killed an entire tourist season.
That is why, in addition to Louisiana being affected with their environment and their shrimping industry and their fishing industry, the economy of Florida, where oil got onto the westernmost beaches--as a matter of fact, there was that famous photograph of Pensacola Beach with the white sugary sand beaches, and it looked like the entire beach was covered. That shot around the world and people started canceling vacations.
Only a few tar balls got as far east as Panama City Beach, and the rest of the gulf coast beaches all the way down to the southern tip of Florida, no oil, but the tourists stopped coming. When the tourists stop coming, there is nobody in the hotels and the hotel workers can't work, there is nobody in the restaurants and all those workers aren't working and all the ancillary businesses that depend on that major component of the economy. Then, of course, the seafood industry--the source of one-third of our domestic seafood in this country, the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, the fishing industry was devastated, even those who could fish outside the danger zone of where the oil was lurking. People stopped buying gulf seafood because they were afraid it was tainted. Even when the oil was finally shut off after 3 months, the gulf was left with this public perception that the gulf was tainted.
If we remember back, the President asked the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, to recommend a strategy to restore the gulf. Why Ray Mabus? Because he had been a Gulf State Governor, Governor of Mississippi. After he did his first tour, Secretary Mabus labeled the gulf a national treasure, and he recommended that a significant portion of the Clean Water Act fines to be levied against BP be sent back to the region for environmental and economic recovery. Over the last couple weeks, the President, the Congress, stakeholder groups from across the country and across the political spectrum have made this commitment to restore this national treasure, and the result is that we passed the RESTORE Act.
Over the next 6 months, the Department of Treasury is going to develop procedures in which to implement the RESTORE Act. The Ecosystem Restoration Council, established by the act, will build on the recommendations of Secretary Mabus, the task force, and others to develop a draft comprehensive plan to address the environmental needs of the gulf. It is a Federal-State council. Once we know the outcome of the Justice Department's lawsuit against BP--and there are rumors that there is a settlement in the works. If that settlement were to be true and the judge approves it, the money will be ready to flow under the procedures being set up under this Federal-State council as initially determined by the Department of the Treasury.
The reason I wish to speak is not only to thank the many people who helped us accomplish this major milestone, but I also want to put into the Congressional Record why certain provisions in the RESTORE Act are there.
As the sponsor of the amendment, I want this legislative intent to be understood as the law is implemented. Certainly, I want understood from my perspective, as one of Florida's two Senators, what we have done. But it is important to flesh it out, if it hasn't been said already in testimony in committee as well as testimony as given in the speeches on the floor.
The RESTORE Act sends 80 percent of all the Clean Water Act fines back to the gulf through four mechanisms. The first is to direct equal allocation among the five Gulf States.
In the spring of 2011, in our State, the Florida legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation to ensure that the most affected counties receive the bulk of any oil spill funding that comes to the State. This is different in the allocation of this first pot of money in the State of Florida from what was indicated in the other four Gulf States. In the case of Florida, it is memorialized in law that 75 percent of the funds for Florida in this first pot of money would be spent in the eight disproportionately affected counties in the Florida Panhandle--so from the west, Escambia County all the way to the east to Wakulla County--while the remaining 25 percent would be spent in other counties. That allocation of funding is mirrored in the RESTORE Act and it is now law. This is important. Because while there are places across the State that suffered from the misperception of oil, the panhandle counties were some of the hardest hit. So when it comes to the first allocation, the intent was to have those eight counties receive 75 percent of the funds in that first pot and for the other counties along the gulf coast of Florida to receive the remaining 25 percent.
If that State law is changed in the future, I want it clearly known that the legislative intent of the sponsor of this bill was what was just said: the 75-25 allocation--not to be squirreled off into some other purposes in the State government but to go to the counties that were affected by the spill.
The Senate-passed version of the RESTORE Act included impact allocation formulas for disproportionately affected counties and for other gulf coast counties that took into account things such as population and proximity to the oil spill. These impact allocations were meant to provide a reasonable and transparent method for accounting for impacts between gulf coast counties in Florida. The Florida Association of Counties convened working groups of the disproportionately affected counties to determine such a method.
When we got into the conference committee with the House, the House didn't go along with that particular internal approach so that language was not included in the final public law.
But I want the record stated that was the intent of the Senate-passed bill, and as I have just come from the gulf coast yesterday, I understand from the county commissions all up and down the gulf that they intend to work with the cities and the other affected parties to try to follow that method they had recommended to us that we put into the Senate-passed bill.
The eight panhandle counties worked hard to reach a consensus, and it is my expectation they are going to continue to honor those collective decisions to come up with a fair and reasonable method of allocating the money. Throughout the spill and for the recovery efforts that are moving forward, the gulf region worked as one gulf, with Louisiana shrimpers standing shoulder to shoulder with Florida county commissions because, together, the gulf would be stronger and better. I urge all the stakeholders to continue this unified, consensus-driven process. Any one city, any one county or State restoration effort will only help the region if you look at it as a whole.
I said there were four pots and each of the pots has a specified amount, a percentage of the total fine money. Each of them has certain criteria. The first pot I described will be divvied up among the five Gulf States, equal parts to each State, and distributed according to the formulas I mentioned.
The second pot is an amount of money specified to be directed under a Federal-State council. It will be for the purposes of restoration of the environment of the gulf.
A third pot will be according to State plans, operating under the criteria put together by all of the stakeholders, including a representative from all the gulf coast counties in Florida, and ultimately approved by the State-Federal council.
The last pot, the final 5 percent of the allocation of the moneys, is to be an investment in the long-term science and monitoring of the gulf ecosystem. When the oil began to spill we immediately realized how little we knew about the gulf. Many commercially and recreationally important fish stocks in the gulf have never had a stock assessment. We did not know what the fisheries were. We knew organizations were closing down certain fish stocks to protect the species, but it was never done with up-to-date data. To know how to restore a whole ecosystem we have to know what has been harmed and how we go about straightening it out. So half of the science funding is going toward a grant program to collect data, observe and monitor the fish, the wildlife, and the ecosystem of the gulf in the long term.
From the beginning this program has been a priority of mine because our fishing industry is so important--commercial fishing, recreational fishing, and charter fishing.
By the way, the protection of these fisheries is not just for the fish in the gulf because so many of these critters that are spawned in the marshes and bayous of the gulf, in the near-shore habitats of the gulf, are species that migrate to all the oceans of the world. I want to reiterate that this program is intended to provide a long-term investment in gulf science.
Years ago, in Alaska, after the Exxon-Valdez spill, it took 5 years for the herring population to collapse and it has not recovered in the 19 years since. We do not want this to happen in the Gulf of Mexico fisheries. If this gulf science program looks only at the short term we may not be able to adequately assess the real impacts.
This funding is also meant to supplement existing efforts and not to supplant them. I want that clear in the legislative intent. The health of the gulf, the fishing industry, and the tourism industry all rely on accurate, up-to-date science--which is lacking, by the way, not just in the gulf but in all our fisheries.
There is a strict cap on the administrative expenses of 3 percent so that the RESTORE funds produce on-the-ground results rather than plugging budgetary shortfalls.
The science pot, the fourth pot, is divided in two. I have described the long-term science looking at the fisheries. The remaining half of the science pot will go to centers of excellence to be established in each of the five Gulf States. University and research institutions in Florida have been a vital part of the response to the Deepwater Horizon incident. Since the 1960s, Florida research institutions have worked together to benefit oceanographic science in the State. This coordinated effort is called the Florida Institute of Oceanography. This institute is essentially Florida's marine science brain trust and its members have done excellent science work, particularly since the oil spill.
This model has produced excellent results that avoid the duplication and make the most effective use of the resources in the State. That is why the RESTORE Act includes language that specifies that in our State of Florida, a consortium of public and private research institutions in the State--a total of 20 with 7 associate additional members, including the two State resource agencies--is going to be the ones named to carry out the center of excellence in our State. This language is intended to provide for the Florida Institute of Oceanography to carry out this program as the centralized voice of the ocean science in Florida.
I want that clearly understood for any who read about this legislation in the future. That was the legislative intent with regard to the center of excellence in the State of Florida. Each of the other States has their own procedures.
This past week I have been on the gulf coast quite a bit to tell folks about what I am sharing here today. This new law is going to provide some of the necessary resources and a framework to restore the gulf coast and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Just like plugging the Macondo well was a step in the right direction, this is another monumental step. But obviously our work is not done here.
The Department of Justice is still negotiating with BP to ensure that they are held responsible for the damage done, and it is time to implement RESTORE, because we want to eat gulf seafood forever at Fourth of July barbecues. Parents want to see their children playing on the white sand beaches of the gulf. They want them to visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore and all up and down, from the Perdido River in the west all the way to the tip of the Florida Keys at Key West.
I am going to continue to work with our colleagues to move this process forward in a way that adequately restores this national treasure of the Gulf of Mexico for many future generations.
I appreciate the opportunity to share this and I yield the floor.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT