Later this month, Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast will mark the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which killed 11 men and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the worst offshore oil disaster in American history, and our state’s economy and environment are still feeling its effects. They likely will be for years.
There is some good news on the horizon, however. This summer, funds will likely start flowing to Florida’s counties from the trust fund established by the 2012 RESTORE Act, which places the majority of the civil fines paid by BP and Transocean in the hands of the Gulf Coast states. Litigation is currently determining just how much will be available, but it could easily total more than a billion dollars for Florida.
In order to ensure that funds are spent in the best possible way — and in order to maximize the environmental and economic benefits to Florida’s coastal communities — it is critical that decisions about spending these funds be made in a transparent and thoughtful way. That is why it is so important that Florida’s Gulf Coast counties pledge to invest their RESTORE Act funds in a transparent and open fashion.
Florida faces a unique set of challenges compared to our neighbors. Whereas in the other four Gulf states, all or the majority of the funds go through state government; in Florida the funds go directly to the 23 counties along the Gulf Coast, from Pensacola to the Keys. That places a great deal of responsibility on county governments.
Ensuring that counties give citizens ample time to review and comment on proposed spending decisions is critical to ensuring that Florida maximizes the benefits from the RESTORE Act and stays true to Congress’ intent, which is to allow state and local governments to fund projects with both environmental and economic benefits.
Florida’s coastal environment and economy are deeply interconnected, which makes it possible to invest in ways that yield both kinds of benefits. Commercial and saltwater fishing in Florida support almost a quarter-million jobs. Wildlife tourism brings more than 7 million tourists to the state annually. Our hospitality industry, which a recent Georgetown University study finds will be the second-fastest growing segment of our state’s economy in the coming years, requires a clean and healthy coast.
Robust public discussion enabled by transparency will also help counties avoid potentially catastrophic unintended consequences of the funds. For instance, counties need to know the long-term costs of the projects they choose to undertake, as they will be on the hook for maintenance and upkeep costs going forward.
Additionally, the environmental impact statements that most projects require will provide important information about trade-offs and alternatives. Public discussion about the liabilities that taxpayers are taking on is critical.
Ideally, counties will take the time to explore in depth the benefits of every project they consider in order to maximize them relative to the costs. RESTORE Act funding is a windfall that the state is unlikely to see again anytime soon, so it’s imperative that we take the time to make sound decisions that generate the greatest benefit for the state.
Transparency need not be cumbersome or costly. Simply placing details about proposed uses of RESTORE Act funding on county websites for 30 or 60 days before county boards vote on how to spend the funds would be a great start. Ideally, this would include analyses of the expected costs and benefits to the economy and the environment, as well as an assessment of long-term upkeep and maintenance costs to the county or the state going forward.
While the Deepwater Horizon spill was one of the most significant calamities to befall Florida’s coast for years, we have the opportunity through the RESTORE Act to make a positive impact on our coast that can last for decades. Transparency by Florida’s counties will help ensure that we do the most good with the resources coming our way.
Christian Cámara is the Florida director and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank. Jay Liles is a policy consultant for the Florida Wildlife Federation.