development driller III
© AP Photo/Gerald HerbertThis file photo made Aug. 3, 2010, shows the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well, and the Helix Q4000, background left, the vessel being used to perform the static kill operation, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. With the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history effectively stopped, and the White House considering an early end to its moratorium on deepwater drilling, Big Oil seems closer to getting back to work in the Gulf.

Washington -- Some 17 months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf Coast lawmakers in the U.S. House remain unable to agree on a bill to send spill fines to the affected areas.

While aides to two Gulf Coast representatives said last month that House lawmakers were on the verge of a breakthrough agreement, no accord has yet been announced and the members are now keeping tight-lipped.

At stake is potentially billions of dollars in environmental and economic recovery money, which Gulf states won't see unless Congress acts.

In the Senate -- where a compromise bill from Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, has gained the support of most Gulf state senators and already passed committee -- the House stalemate has some feeling nervous.

"It doesn't bode well for the bill to not have a consensus in the House of Representatives," a Landrieu aide said.

An aide to Shelby said the House is a full year behind the Senate's progress. Without an agreement among the House's Gulf Coast delegation, the aide added, such a bill stands little chance of passing.

"The danger is, you have so much division among the affected states that (House) leadership just washes their hands of it," the aide said.

In a telephone interview, Shelby himself said "the prospects are good" for the bill in the Senate. As for the House?

"I haven't been in the House in 25 years," Shelby said. "I can't tell you what's going on over there."

House lawmakers are saying little.

"There's certainly negotiations going on," said Dan McFaul, chief of staff for Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican representing Florida's western panhandle. He gave few details of those negotiations, other than to say, "There's still some issues out there that are being worked through."

Spokesmen for Reps. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, Steven Palazzo, R-Biloxi, and Steve Scalise, R-La., all declined to comment or did not respond to messages from The Mississippi Press.

BP PLC and other companies deemed responsible for last year's oil spill could be fined between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion under the Clean Water Act. Lawmakers and the Obama administration largely agree that federal law should be changed to send most of that money to the Gulf Coast.

But they have been at odds over how much each state should getand how it may be used.

Bonner, Miller and Scalise have each introduced their own, very different proposals for allocating the fine money to the Gulf states.

Landrieu's aide said that Scalise has recently been trying to get House lawmakers to agree to a bill closely resembling the Senate legislation, which likely has the best chance of passing Congress.

"If they go back to a complete rewrite, it should give the constituents in the Gulf Coast some concern that this bill will never become law," the aide said, adding that significant changes to the Senate bill could tear apart the bipartisan, multi-state coalition that senators worked for months to build.

The Senate proposal, dubbed the COASTAL Act, would send 80 percent of spill fine money to the Gulf Coast states. Roughly two-thirds of the Gulf allocation could be spent on environmental or economic recovery efforts, most of the rest could only be used for environmental restoration and a small portion would be dedicated to funding Gulf science and fisheries programs.

Of the roughly two-thirds of Gulf Coast money that the bill allocates to particular states, Louisiana would get the largest chunk, Alabama is second and just slightly ahead of Florida and Mississippi, and Texas would receive the least.

Last month, the bill passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Senators and their aides said they will ask Senate leaders in coming weeks to bring the proposal before the full chamber and are hoping for passage through the Senate by year's end.

At that point, the bill would be in the House's hands, agreement or not. Shelby said he's just focusing on his chamber for now.

"What we need to do is work on the Senate side and try to pass the bill," Shelby said.