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Sept. 2011 Update from Washington: Gulf Coast Legislation

There’s an axiom in Washington that when disaster strikes, Congress responds. But in the case of the BP Gulf oil spill—the worst environmental disaster of our time—this axiom has failed, at least to date. The House passed legislation last summer but the Senate failed to follow suit, and when Congress returned this year, the media had moved on and political prospects for making restoring the Gulf or making drilling safer were dimmer than ever.

But advocates have not relented, and now, over a year later, momentum is building behind legislation crucial for the Gulf and for our national energy and environmental future. Several Senate committees are preparing to review bills with the potential to make a historic investment in restoring the Gulf, empower citizens and community leaders to work effectively with the fossil fuel industry to protect their communities, and enhance environmental and human health and safety across the offshore drilling industry.

Most immediately, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee will soon take up the RESTORE Act (S. 861), a bill from Louisiana Senators Landrieu (D) and Vitter (R) that directs penalties collected from BP under the Clean Water Act (estimated at five to 20 billion dollars for a spill of this magnitude) back to the most impacted communities and states for restoration. Debate continues over how to fairly divide the penalty money among states and ensure adequate oversight of the restoration process, but ensuring that these resources reach impacted communities is a critical first step. Gulf advocates and faith community allies nationwide are rallying for RESTORE and we need your voice too as the Senate prepares to consider this vital legislation.

But RESTORE isn’t everything. The bill does not include a Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council (RCAC), a funded body of citizen stakeholders and community leaders who advise the fossil fuel industry, using local knowledge to make drilling safer and prevent future disasters. Two highly effective councils were created in Alaska after Exxon-Valdez, and the Gulf needs these bodies to ensure that local stakeholders have a seat at the table as decisions about the fossil fuel future are made. As a matter of social justice for the people of the Gulf, advocates are urging that this critical oversight and empowerment mechanism be part of any Gulf legislation.

Finally, the Gulf spill—and recent accidents in the North Sea and China—taught a critical lesson in the dangers of offshore oil drilling and the need for regulatory reform. Senators Bingaman (D-NM) and Murkowski (R-AK) have been working for over a year toward Outer Continental Shelf reform and could soon take up offshore safety measures like the Outer Continental Shelf Reform Act (S. 917), designed to make safety a priority in offshore drilling.

Our faiths mandate that we be good stewards of our planet and its resources, and protect our vulnerable neighbors; as we continue working toward a clean energy future, guarding human and environmental health and safety as long as offshore drilling continues is equally and immediately important. While none are perfect, each of these bills represents an important step toward safer drilling, a restored Gulf, and an empowered community with a voice in its future. 

The After the Spill: Religious Communities Restoring the Gulf campaign partners remain committed to advocating for the Gulf and supporting the work of communities working toward a more environmentally just and sustainable future for all through direct service, education and building awareness. We hope you will join us in this work.

(By Rachel Cohen, Sustainability Program Coordinator for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. Learn more about how communities are taking action at