Disagreement centers on which statute directs more funds to La.
by jordan blum
Advocate Washington bureau
October 11, 2012
“Why the government would be interested in benefiting the polluter? I don’t know.” Sen. Mary landrieu, on BP’s ability to take tax credits for oil leak payments
WASHINGTON — As reports and criticisms circulate that the federal government may move outside of the federal RESTORE Act framework in the BP oil leak settlement talks, Louisiana’s two senators are taking different approaches.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., joined most of the Gulf Coast senators in writing a letter asking President Barack Obama to stick to the RESTORE Act, which she sponsored, that would direct 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines to the five affected coastal states.
But Sen. David Vitter, R-La., withheld signing the letter and is siding with negotiators in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration who argue that a greater proportion of funds could go to Louisiana if more of the dollars are funneled through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and not only the RESTORE Act.
This is a rare case where Vitter and the Jindal administration may be more aligned with President Obama’s Department of Justice, which is leading the settlement talks.
Landrieu is more critical of additional federal intervention.
The NRDA process is focused on acquiring and allocating funds to undo the damage caused to the environment. The dollars from the Clean Water Act — through which the RESTORE Act funnels funds — would be direct fines from the responsible parties.
Vitter on Tuesday called the increased federal involvement a “trade-off” to possibly getting more overall dollars for Louisiana.
“This is a very detailed negotiation — a lot of moving parts,” Vitter said of the “global settlement” talks between BP and the Justice Department before the litigation goes to trial in January.
“I just want our negotiators … intimately involved in this very complex negotiation to have all the tools available,” said Vitter, who still called the RESTORE Act an “essential element.”
But Landrieu emphasized that the letter to Obama asserted that the negotiations should focus on getting the most payments from BP through both the NRDA and RESTORE Act processes — not one or the other.
“These are separate penalties assessed under separate statutes, and undermining recovery attained through one by diverting fines to the other simply is not appropriate,” states the letter that was co-signed by U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; and Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
“This is an effort to get both penalties as high as possible,” Landrieu said Tuesday.
The RESTORE Act gives states more flexibility with the dollars and sends more funds directly to parishes — the NRDA process does not, she said.
Out of $1 billion BP has pledged through NRDA thus far, only $60 million was fully allocated, Landrieu said.
Also, she noted, the dollars BP gives through NRDA can be written off as tax credits.
“Why the government would be interested in benefiting the polluter? I don’t know,” Landrieu said.
Without the RESTORE Act, she said, all the dollars would flow directly to the U.S. Treasury instead. Landrieu said she is “very concerned” the Justice Department is ignoring the actions of Congress.
The White House directed questions to the U.S. Justice Department, whose officials do not comment on matters involving pending litigation.
Garret Graves, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, said that, while 80 percent of the RESTORE Act funds go to the Gulf states, all of the NRDA dollars are directed to the Gulf.
“Our primary focus is on ensuring that all of the damage that was done as a result of the oil spill is fixed,” Graves said. “The damages are still occurring because the oil is still there.”
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into Gulf waters and along Louisiana’s coast.
The RESTORE Act signed into law in June as part of the federal transportation bill directs 80 percent of the BP Clean Water Act fine money — an amount that could reach $20 billion — to the five Gulf Coast states: Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
News reports from Alabama last week cited unnamed officials briefed by the Justice Department that the civil and criminal Deepwater Horizon settlement talks were moving outside of the RESTORE Act.
It was Alabama Sen. Shelby who initiated the subsequent letter to Obama.
The argument is that NRDA focuses more on allocating dollars where the most damage occurred and that, as a result, diverting more funds through that process would benefit Louisiana the most.
Likewise, more dollars going through the RESTORE Act would then help states like Alabama that were not as strongly affected.
Vitter said the letter to Obama was maybe too “pro-Alabama” and not as beneficial to Louisiana.