GULF OF MEXICO — There’s now a draft plan for using fines from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill to restore the Gulf Coast’s natural resources and economy.
But the document doesn’t include two items required by federal law: a 10-year allocation plan or a three-year priority list of projects and programs, The Times-Picayune reports.
There are several reasons, according to the 20-page “draft initial comprehensive plan” released Thursday by The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. One is that officials don’t yet know how much money the RESTORE Act trust fund will get or when it will arrive. The U.S. Treasury has not issued procedures for spending it. The council wants public input. And Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have not yet completed their own plans.
The federal-state body will oversee billions of dollars in Clean Water Act fines from the spill. The RESTORE act allocates 80 percent of the money to restoration projects along the Gulf Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, and the rest to a trust fund to cover the cost of future oil spills.
Along with the document, it released a 112-page environmental assessment and a list of several hundred potential federal and state projects and programs that have been authorized but not yet begun, 73 of them in Louisiana.
Its list of goals for spending the money: restore and conserve habitat, restore water quality, replenish and protect living coastal and marine resources, enhance community resilience, and restore and revitalize the Gulf economy.
As a result of a settlement of Clean Water Act civil claims with Transocean, the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded and sank during the BP Macondo well blowout in 2010, the trust fund will receive $800 million during the next two years. It has already received $320 million of that.
Under the RESTORE Act, the states get 35 percent directly. The council has oversight over another 60 percent, half of that going to projects chosen by the council and half to projects chosen by the states. Two sets of science and education projects get the remaining 5 percent.
A federal trial that will determine the remaining Clean Water Act fines to be paid by BP or its drilling partners is in recess until September.
The companies could be liable for $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled if their behavior causing the three-month-long spill is found to be negligent, or as much as $4,300 per barrel if it’s found to be grossly negligent.
Based on court rulings in the case so far and early estimates of the amount of oil spilled, the fines could total between $4 billion and $17.5 billion, although the federal judge in the case could lower either of those sums for actions taken by the parties to limit the spill’s effects.
The council also will coordinate its projects with those funded in other ways with money emanating from the oil spill. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is expected to identify several billion dollars of projects designed to restore the coast and to compensate the public for lost natural resources.
Under Transocean and BP criminal plea agreements with the federal government, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation will receive more than $2.5 billion in the next five years, with half going to projects to rebuild barrier islands and begin construction of sediment and freshwater diversions in Louisiana.
The National Academy of Sciences also received $500 million under those settlements for human health and environmental protection, including Gulf oil spill protection and response. And the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund was given $100 million from the BP criminal plea agreement for wetlands restoration and conservation, and projects benefiting migratory birds.
While the vast majority of projects governed by the comprehensive plan will be aimed at natural resources, council-selected projects may also include spending land on long-term land use planning, acquisition or preservation of undeveloped lands in coastal high-hazard areas, such as for use as buffers against storm surge and sea level rise; and for non-structural storm and surge protection. While the council has not defined “non-structural,” it generally refers to raising buildings above flood levels or buying structures in flood zones.
The states also are allowed to direct as much as 25 percent of their money to infrastructure projects, according to the draft plan, with those projects benefiting the economy or ecosystem resources, including port infrastructure.
The council will hold public sessions in June: June 3 in Pensacola, Fla.; June 5, Spanish Fort, Ala.; June 10, Galveston, Texas; June 11, Biloxi, Miss.; June 12, Belle Chasse, La.; and June 17 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s representative on the council, said he expects Louisiana to ask for some of the RESTORE Act money to build the Morganza to the Gulf hurricane levee in the Houma area and perhaps parts of the Donaldsonville to the Gulf project recently rejected by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The state’s use of money for ports could be in the form of dredging, with the dredged material used to build wetlands, Graves said. The state has unsuccessfully requested congressional funding to deepen the Mississippi River channel to 50 feet at its mouth to accommodate larger ships using the expanded and deepened Panama Canal.
But Graves said the CPRA will focus on projects recommended by the Coastal Master Plan approved by the state Legislature in 2012. Beyond some money for levees and wetland-related dredging, the state is not interested in using RESTORE Act money for infrastructure, he said.
“We are talking about the impacts of the nation’s worst oil spill, the future of millions of Louisianans, our economy, our fishermen and our coast — politics has no place here,” Graves said in an email messsage. “To deviate at this point would be irresponsible,” he said. “These other types of projects may be aesthetically pleasing, but they don’t function well under 15 feet of hurricane storm surge.”