Six Years Later, Deepwater Restoration Money Starts Flowing
By Anna Casey
Six years after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a Texas coalition is reviewing applications for projects to repair the continuing environmental damage to the Gulf of Mexico. The group will award grants worth millions of dollars from a trust fund fed by fines paid by British Petroleum and the other companies responsible for the disaster. But environmentalists say the need far exceeds those resources.
While Texas suffered less damage from the spill than other Gulf Coast states, it will receive $1 billion to pay for environmental and economic restoration programs over the next 15 years. The trust fund overall has $16 billion, which will go to projects in the five states affected by the spill – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Even that historic amount is not nearly enough, according to leaders of environmental groups, who say the Gulf had yet to recover from the major disasters in as many years: Hurricane Ike in 2008 and theApril 20, 2010 explosion of the Macondo underwater well 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The explosion killed 11 people and injured 17. The well spewed 5 million barrels of oil into the water, killing marine life, damaging coastal habitats and spreading oil on beaches, before it was capped three months later.
“It will take money beyond that $16 billion” to restore the Gulf and coastal areas, said Laura Huffman, executive director of the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “We’re only six years out. I don’t think the results are in yet as far as long-term ecological damage” from the Macondo disaster.
“What the Gulf needs is permanent, systemic funding” to help repair the damage from the disasters and counter the strains from Texas’ growing coastal population, Huffman said.
“There are a lot of needs and way more projects than you could ever spend money on,” said Bethany Kraft, director of the Gulf Restoration Program with the Ocean Conservancy. which is based in Washington, D.C.
According to Kraft, the Gulf region historically has been underfunded compared to other bodies of water in the U.S. She hopes that some of the oil spill money will go to scientific research about a big and complex ecosystem.
“We know more about the moon and Mars than what the Gulf looks like,” Kraft said, even though over 60 percent of U.S. water systems drain into the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 14 million people live along the Gulf Coast, and that population is growing faster than in any other U.S. coastal region, according to the Census Bureau. The Gulf is home to more than 24 endangered or threatened species, including the whooping crane and Bryde’s whale, which has nearly disappeared from the Gulf. Half of coastal wetlands across the Gulf have been lost, and sea level rise is higher there than the global average, according to the Gulf of Mexico Foundation.
Huffman’s organization has been working with other environmental groups to identify priorities for allocating money from the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, which Congress created in 2012 with passage of a law known as the RESTORE Act. (That’s short for the Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act.) So far, they’ve settled on “habitat protection, securing freshwater inflows, oyster reef restoration, protection of endangered species, and enhanced monitoring and research on critical ecosystems and species,” Huffman said.
The law stipulates that 80 percent of fines assessed against BP, Transocean and Anadarko Petroleum Corp., primarily for violations of the federal Clean Water Act, go to restoration projects in the five coastal states. BP and Anadarko were co-owners of the Macondo well; Transocean owned the rig and the blowout preventers. The current process will allocate $56 million from that fund to Texas projects.
Other funding sources tied to the oil spill have financed 22 projects in Texas, including the acquisition of the Powderhorn Ranch, 17,300 acres on the coast in Calhoun County, on the coastal bend northeast of Corpus Christi – the largest land conservation purchase in Texas history — and shoreline and estuary protection efforts.
Some of those projects have included restoring the oyster reefs that provide livelihoods for people such as Tracy Woody, general manager of Jeri’s Seafood, a family-owned oyster fishing company in Smith Point on Galveston Bay.
“The BP oil spill was the worst thing to happen to my business,” Woody said.
Just two years earlier, Hurricane Ike had destroyed nearly 60 percent of the oyster habitat in Galveston Bay and 80 percent in East Bay, as sediment washed over the reefs as the storm water retreated. Then, in 2010, came the oil spill and a severe drought.
After the oil spill, fisherman from other Gulf states that had suffered worse damage began harvesting oysters in Texas waters, creating more strain on the local harvest.
Last year, the Nature Conservancy of Texas was awarded $2.5 million from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund to help restore reefs in Galveston Bay.
“It sounds like a lot,” Woody said. “But for reef restoration, that’s not a lot of money.”
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency helping to oversee distribution of the trust fund money in the state, 217 applications had been submitted for grants by the April 20 deadline. State representatives from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Government Trustees Restoring the Gulf, and the TCEQ, led by Commissioner Toby Baker, will review the applications. Once the TCEQ has selected the winning projects, they will be posted for a 45-day public comment period.
In the meantime, those who depend on the Gulf hope that the state makes the right investments from an unprecedented opportunity.
“It may not be as pleasant as some blue water in another state,” Terry Wood said of the sometimes brown waters of the Gulf. “But it’s got its own natural beauty, and I want my grandkids to be able to enjoy it.”