Following Rig Disaster, Cantwell Calls for Increased Access to Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Fund

WASHINGTON, DC – In the wake of last week’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) today led a group of senators calling for changes to improve federal preparedness and response to oil spills. Today, Senators Cantwell, Olympia Snowe, Bill Nelson, Mark Begich, Roger Wicker, and George LeMieux sent a letter requesting the transfer of $15 million from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The money would go to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) to help fund its fiscal year 2011 budget request. OR&R is the only federal agency involved with oil spill preparedness and response that provides research on a spill’s projected path and planning for the protection of environmentally sensitive habitat threatened by a spill. OR&R faces decreasing budgets and staff and the added responsibility that comes with the Obama Administration’s call for increased energy exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf. The letter from Cantwell and her five colleagues was sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Commerce and Homeland Security Subcommittees.
“The tragic Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion last week in the Gulf of Mexico that left eleven workers missing and presumed dead continues to leak tens of thousands of gallons of oil a day, threatening marine life and hundreds of miles of pristine coastline from Louisiana to Florida,” Senator Cantwell said. “When a spill of this magnitude occurs, one of our most important resources is the expertise of NOAA, which has the capability to project how spills will affect coastal areas. However, the agency struggles annually to find funding. Transferring $15 million from the trust fund will enable NOAA to meet its immediate challenges, and I’ve introduced a provision that will permanently authorize such transfers in the future.”
NOAA’s OR&R responds to 200 oil spills annually. During a major oil spill, such as with last week’s in the Gulf of Mexico, OR&R provides critical scientific support to the Coast Guard and other federal, state and local agencies by determining where the spill might go, identifying sensitive habitats to protect, assessing impacts to natural resources, and developing cleanup strategies. OR&R also coordinates national and regional response plans and conducts training for federal, state and local partners.
“Current funding levels are not sufficient to permit OR&R to properly prepare for, respond to, and restore coastal areas impacted by oil spills,” the Senators wrote. “The additional funding will allow OR&R to conduct research to improve the effectiveness of oil spill response and restoration; enhance its research into natural resource damage assessment capacity; and, update oil spill trajectory models and environmental sensitivity indices (ESI). The ESI maps of the Gulf Coast, for example, have not been updated since Hurricane Katrina dramatically reshaped the Louisiana coastline. This outdated information will hamper the efficiency of response efforts if oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill should reach the shore.”
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 authorized the use of the OSLTF to pay for cleanups and restoration when the polluter is unknown or exceeded their limit of liability. This fund supports federal agencies in oil spill recovery training, research and development, and preparedness through annual appropriations. Senator Cantwell, the Chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, has long been a champion of the OSLTF, and following a 2005 report indicating that the fund was at risk, she worked with Senators Dan Inouye and Ted Stevens to craft legislation reinstituting a per-barrel fee on oil companies to replenish and expand the fund. That legislation was enacted into law in July 2005 as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Currently, NOAA is the only federal agency with a key role in oil spill response and preparedness that does not receive an annual appropriation from OSLTF. While NOAA can access funding from the trust fund for emergency responses, it cannot access funds for ongoing operations of its oil spill modeling, research and planning programs. Senator Cantwell has a provision (Section 809) in the Coast Guard Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011 that would permanently authorize such funding transfers from the trust fund in the future.