Texas has been promised at least $100 million for coastal restoration in the wake of the massive BP oil spill that harmed the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But no Texas projects have been announced, and an official involved with the talks did not sound optimistic about getting dollars flowing quickly to causes like protecting marshland or sealife.
The process of allocating dollars has been “much more complicated than we first anticipated,” said Don Pitts, a state coordinator with Texas Parks and Wildlife, which helps screen potential projects.
As part of an agreement last year, Texas is slated to get at least $100 million of BP spill money, and possibly more, for coastal restoration. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were also promised at least $100 million each. Unlike Texas, those states are already using the money to move forward with two projects each, though the bulk of the funds haven't been disbursed.
Texas officials have so far received 188 suggestions from the public on how to spend the money, according to Pitts. The ideas include items such as improving bird habitat at a state park in Harris County to restoring dunes in Brazoria County.
The state has submitted a condensed list of projects to BP for approval, Pitts said. But the oil company hasn't acted, and Pitts said he “can’t guess what BP is thinking.” The condensed list is not available to the public, and the process could take years.
Craig Savage, a BP spokesman, said in an email that he “can’t discuss on-going negotiations.” As to why Texas projects were slower to receive approval than other states, he noted that “trustees,” or representatives, of each Gulf state were involved in the decision-making process, and “any trustee has the right to [object to] a project” even if it is not in their jurisdiction.
Earlier this year, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality official told the Tribune that he had expected some Texas projects to be announced by the end of summer, which did not happen.
In addition to the $100 million, which comes to Texas through an a spill-related federal process called Natural Resource Damage Assessment, the Texas coastline is also eligible for restoration funding from other spill-related sources. Under BP’s landmark criminal settlement agreement with the U.S. government this month, Texas should receive about $191 million for projects that would reduce damage to the coast from the BP spill or mitigate damage from future spills. The money will be administered through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which specializes in disbursing government dollars. (The agreement still awaits court approval.)
A federal law called the Restore Act, which President Obama signed this summer, could hold still another source of money for Texas. That law directs 80 percent of any civil fines BP pays under the Clean Water Act toward coastal restoration in Gulf states, including Texas. The fine could easily reach into the billions, but the amount depends on future litigation.
Additionally, Texas is already receiving a few million dollars for coastal restoration from a settlement with MOEX, one of BP’s partners on the blown-out well. Some of that money is going toward acquiring parkland for the state in an Aransas County area frequented by endangered whooping cranes.
Texas also received some “emergency” dollars from BP last year, to aid its endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.
Texas suffered much less direct damage than other Gulf states from the spill, although indirectly the oil affected birds and turtles that nest on Texas beaches. Environmentalists believe that’s why the state may be slower to receive its $100 million through NRDA: That process requires showing a link between damages and restoration funds.
“That’s frankly easier for some of the other states to do because they had more damage,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation.
But selecting the right projects is better than selecting them quickly, said Jill Mastrototaro, who directs the Sierra Club’s Gulf Coast campaign from New Orleans. “There shouldn’t necessarily be a rush to act either,” she said, noting that it was important to be able to monitor progress on projects.
Laura Huffman of the Nature Conservancy, which has submitted some Texas projects for consideration for the NRDA funds, said that she remained hopeful of that some Texas projects would be announced by the end of the year. She expects that the trustees of the spill money will focus on relatively large-scale projects, which will be easier to administer.
The funding represents “the single biggest opportunity the conservation community will have to invest in Gulf of Mexico restoration of our time,” Huffman said.
Asked whether Texas would eventually use its full $100 million, Pitts said, “We have every intention to do it.”
Editor’s note: By way of clarification, Texas’ $100 million share of NRDA spill money comes as a result of an agreement between federal and state representatives. BP has agreed to provide $1 billion for Gulf restoration, but a separate agreement between state and federal “trustees” governs how that money will be split among states and federal agencies.