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Oil Spill 2010: Former Senator Bill Nelson Looks Back

As part of the look back on the 10th anniversary of the BP oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody sat down with former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the force behind the RESTORE Act.

After hearing about the April 20 explosion off Louisiana — which killed 11 oil rig workers — Nelson knew it was serious, and eventually would pose a threat to beaches along the Florida Panhandle. The federal government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels — 210 million gallons. But from the outset, the oil wasn’t the lone obstacle.

“The oil companies tried to keep the amount of the spill from us,” Nelson said. “And it took all kinds of sleuthing and banging heads until we could actually get the calculations of the wellheads spewing.”

Nelson and Senate Energy Committee Chair Barbara Boxer of California were able to obtain the estimates, using calculations based on photographs of the damaged wellhead. Today, Nelson says there was an initial feeling of hope -- that the winds would not steer the oil toward shore. It was a hope short-lived.

“Our first thought was [the] hope that the winds were not going to shift and start bringing all of that oil on top of the surface all the way off the Louisiana coast east, all the way to Florida’s beautiful beaches,” said Nelson.

Local officials and media joined Nelson aboard a Fish and Wildlife boat to inspect oil floating in Pensacola Pass. At that time, the senator was asked to describe what he saw.

“Reddish-brown oil that is in bits as wide as four-inch hamburger patties,” said Nelson over the boat’s engines. “Some are like quarters, some are like dimes. You can see that it forms scum on the top.”

A little farther east, work was underway installing rubberized booms on the water to keep the oil from coming into Choctawhatchee Bay.

“But sure enough, the oil got on the beach there; not as much as those white, sugary sands of Pensacola being covered up with oil,” Nelson said. “And that was the damaging photo; that photo ran around the world.”  

It was that photo of oil blackening Pensacola Beach that became the genesis of what would become the federal RESTORE Act sponsored by Sen. Nelson. Florida had had a ban on offshore drilling since 2006 to run until the year 2022 – arguments continue over an extension. RESTORE was the mechanism to reimburse the five Gulf Coast states impacted by the spill – Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. 

Credit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20, 2010.

“So we started, knowing all the Gulf Coast states were going to want in a settlement on this – which ultimately would be in federal court – to get some of that revenue,” said Nelson. “That was called the RESTORE Act.”

RESTORE was a part of the overall Transportation Bill. Co-sponsoring the measure, along with Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, was Mary Landrieu of Louisiana

“Six hundred miles the Gulf coastline were oiled; 86,000 square miles of waters were closed to fishing, causing a $2.5 billion loss to the fishing industry,” Landrieu said on the Senate floor in 2012. “The U.S. Charter Association estimated a $23 billion impact to tourism across the Gulf Coast.”

“What she wanted was revenue sharing from the federal government that had all the rights to federal waters – as opposed to state waters,” Nelson said. “Because that was another way to help them with their cleanup.”

On March 14, 2012, the Senate passed the RESTORE Act as an amendment to the transportation bill on a 76-22 vote. One of the senators against it was Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who originally supported it.

“My relationship and friendship with Marco Rubio has been a very good one, and we’ve worked together on so many things,” said Nelson. “On [RESTORE] I just did not understand it.”

The House then approved the measure 373-52, and it was signed into law by President Obama on July 6. Sen. Bill Nelson placed in the bill a “center for excellence” amendment for Florida – the Florida Institute for Oceanography – made up of about 20 state universities to study the ongoing impact of the oil released into the Gulf by Deepwater Horizon.

“It takes a while for that natural body of water to heal itself,” said former Sen. Bill Nelson. That’s why the law is so severe about. You put a barrel of oil into a public water, there’s going to be a fine. That was the decision by the federal judge in New Orleans [Carl Barbier] that created the RESTORE Act.”

Under RESTORE, 80% of the money collected will go the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund in the Treasury Department, a trust fund created under the bill. The remaining 20% goes to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is managed by the Coast Guard and available primarily for oil spill-related emergency response.