SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Sand dunes rise above a windy, desolate stretch of beach, miles beyond where most tourists venture. Occasional flocks of brown pelicans are visible, arcing through the sky above the water.
“I love watching them fly,” said Sonny Perez, manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which includes some of the remote northern reaches of South Padre. “They’re like little bombardiers going across.”
In the coming years, the 97,000-acre refuge could add more land on the island to its holdings. At least $100 million, and possibly much more, will be funneled to Texas as part of the cleanup financing from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. So far, Texas officials have received more than 150 suggestions on how to spend the money, including expansion of parkland, restoration of oyster reefs and a campaign to reduce litter that ends up in the Gulf.
For environmental groups involved in coastal restoration, this money, as yet unspent, represents a huge opportunity. Besides the $100 million that BP is allocating to each of the five Gulf states, Texas can also seek a chunk of an additional $500 million in BP funds that the federal government will disburse to Gulf states. All of the money, $1 billion in total, is earmarked for “early restoration,” and the amounts could increase further, said James Tripp, senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Pending developments in court and in Congress, Texas could also get hundreds of millions of dollars more as a result of Clean Water Act penalties assessed against BP and other companies involved in the spill.
“These are definitely good sources of restoration dollars for the Texas coast,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, which has proposed several projects. The money is especially welcome, he said, because state financing for coastal restoration has shrunk considerably, even as relentless population growth has put pressure on fragile marshlands and waterways and wildlife habitats.
It may seem surprising that Texas stands to receive so much money from the spill. The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which killed 11 crew members and spewed nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf over three months, occurred hundreds of miles from Texas shores. Unlike the other Gulf states, Texas was not hit with oil, aside from a smattering of tar balls on the Galveston coastline.
But Texas has been affected indirectly. For example, bird and turtle species harmed by the oil also spend time in Texas. Photographs of oil-soaked brown pelicans became emblematic of the spill two years ago. The birds, which were on the federal endangered species list until 2009, regularly use Texas beaches. Similarly, endangered sea turtles swim in the Gulf and nest on islands like South Padre in the spring.
“It’s exceptional wildlife habitat,” Tim Richardson, a representative of the American Land Conservancy, said of the 186 acres of land on South Padre that the conservancy owns. He hopes the federal government will buy the land with BP money and add it to the Laguna Atascosa refuge.
This is the first time a company has agreed to finance “early restoration” projects after an oil spill, according to Tom Mueller, a BP spokesman. At least some of the money seems likely to go toward rectifying problems that predate the spill, like shrinking wetlands.
Texas is slightly behind other Gulf states in picking projects to pursue because, state officials say, they want more time to evaluate their options. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are each backing two projects, ranging from $4.4 million to build and repair boat ramps in Florida to $13.2 million to create a marsh in Louisiana. These proposals — the first of many — are being assessed in a series of public meetings, including one in Galveston last week. They also await final approval from BP, the states and the federal government.
BP will “look forward to the projects being implemented,” Mueller wrote in an email.
Richard Seiler, an official with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said he expected Texas to put forward a handful of projects by the end of summer, or earlier.
Apart from BP, other federal money is also available to aid conservation of the Gulf. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture, is disbursing up to $50 million in farm bill financing to Gulf state farmers and ranchers to encourage conservation practices that will result in cleaner water flowing to the Gulf. In Texas, the projects will target the San Antonio River and its Gulf outlet, the San Antonio Bay, according to Sonny Vela, a Corpus Christi-based liaison for the conservation service. The money should start coming around March, he said.
Another channel for federal money, the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, which taps federal royalties from offshore oil and gas leases, began disbursing money several years ago. Projects have included plugging abandoned oil and gas wells in the waters off Jefferson County and the Houston Parks Board’s purchase of a bayou in Harris County.
But the megadollars are coming from companies responsible for the spill, though the final amounts are not known. A trial scheduled to begin Feb. 27 in a federal court in New Orleans will determine how much the companies, including BP and Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, must pay in fines under the Clean Water Act. The final figure could top $20 billion.
Proposed legislation called the Restore Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and eight other Gulf state senators, would send at least 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines toward coastal restoration. The lone holdout, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, worries that the multiagency structure for disbursing the funds is too bureaucratic, and he wants to consider alternatives, like the existing Gulf of Mexico Alliance.
“Unfortunately, Texans are familiar with what happens when the federal government micromanages disaster funding,” Cornyn said in an email via his spokesman.
Even if the Restore Act does not pass, a settlement between the federal government and the oil spill defendants could result in money going toward coastal restoration, Tripp said.
Stokes of the Galveston Bay Foundation estimates that Texas could receive $500 million to $1 billion, or possibly even more, from Clean Water Act money.
Coastal groups say they can put the money to good use.
"You don't hope for an oil spill, certainly," Stokes said, "but the oil spill can generate dollars for this type of work."
BP America is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.