Northwest Florida Lawmakers Angry Over Changes to BP Oil Spill Settlement

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Although it has been nearly two and a half years since the accident, we continue to examine the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Panama City and all of Florida's Gulf Coast. A recent report in The News Herald highlights the concerns of Northwest Florida lawmakers in light of new negotiations regarding the use of fines imposed on BP stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Word has spread about a deal that would give control over BP fine funds to federal government authorities. The rumored deal would also give certain tax deductions to the companies involved in the disaster.

Lawmakers worry the new agreements would run contrary to the carefully negotiated provisions of the RESTORE Act, a framework passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on July 6. Bill Williams, a Gulf County Commissioner and the current president of the Florida Association of Counties, calls the potential changes a "federal power grab" and believes it would be a misuse of RESTORE Act monies. As laid forth in the Act, 80% of the fines that BP must pay for Clean Water Act violations are to be given to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

Under the new settlement agreement, some of the funds marked for the five Gulf Coast states impacted by the spill would instead go to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, aimed at repairing environmental damage. This would sharply limit the damage awards aimed at repairing economic damage. The change would impact Florida and would leave Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi out of the settlement. United States Representative Jeff Miller of Chumuckla adds that the settlement would lower the civil penalties assessed against BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster while giving a tax advantage to all of the parties deemed responsible for the spill.

Commissioner Williams suggests the new proposal is unconstitutional and usurps the power of the U.S. Congress while delivering a major blow to the Gulf Coast states. Rep. Miller agrees, saying the deal allows the U.S. Justice Department to interrupt a carefully negotiated, balanced approach. Along with Senator Bill Nelson, he criticizes the agreement for giving BP hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits and failing to hold the company fully accountable for its actions.

Other federal lawmakers have joined the call, with a group sending a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder criticizing any DOJ effort to shift fines to the NRDA in circumvention of the power of Congress and the President. Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City issued a press release praising the RESTORE Act plan as a collaborative effort that included the voices of those communities hit the hardest by the BP spill. He suggests altering the agreement would withhold justice from the Gulf Coast residents who suffered an economic nightmare as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

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