What did the oil spill mean for Alabama?

By SLADE BLACKWELL / Guest Columnist

More than four years have passed since the Deepwater Horizon spill released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The preliminary estimates conducted by Dr. Samuel Addy and Ahmad Ijaz from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama found that worst case scenario for the oil spill would result “in losses of $3.3 billion in Alabama economic output, $971 million in earnings, and nearly 49,000 jobs for 2010.”
Not only did the oil spill have negative impacts on Alabama’s economy, but the long-term environmental impacts also remain unknown.
What we do know is that a federal judge in New Orleans recently found that BP acted with a “conscious disregard of known risks” that led to the disaster.
The New York Times noted that the ruling of gross negligence “opened the possibility of $18 billion in new civil penalties for BP, nearly quadruple the maximum Clean Water Act penalty for simple negligence and far more than the $3.5 billion the company has set aside.”
In 2012, Congress enacted the Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act to redirect federal fines and penalties in an effort to give local and regional officials more control over the environmental and economic restoration projects related to the spill.
While BP has pledged to appeal the recent ruling, $18 billion in Clean Water Act penalties could mean more than $1 billion in resources to help Alabama recover from the spill.  The finding has also emboldened Attorney General Luther Strange as the State of Alabama seeks compensatory and punitive damages from BP.
Before Alabama starts counting the dollars, Alabamians should realize that the final penalty assessed on BP and the results of the state’s lawsuit could take years to reach. In the meantime, Alabama needs to consider how it will manage a potentially massive economic windfall.
The Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, set up under the RESTORE Act, began accepting submissions for economic and environmental restoration projects in March of this year. The broad criteria for eligible projects run the gamut from habitat restoration to workforce development and tourism promotion.
Not only should Alabama’s elected officials exercise transparency and discretion in allocating RESTORE Act funds, but we should also be careful how the state spends any resources it secures through litigation.
First and foremost, we must ensure that both Alabama’s economy and environment are made whole, particularly in the impacted Gulf Coast region of the state.
The Deepwater Horizon was indeed a tragedy for the State of Alabama, but the resources derived from penalties and lawsuits against BP and others responsible for the spill may mean a real opportunity for Alabama’s economy to prosper and our treasured Gulf Coast to thrive.

Slade Blackwell is an Alabama state senator representing portions of Shelby County.