Worries grow over oil-spill money flowing inland

By Nathanial Gronewold | 01/04/2017 01:09 PM EST

Gwen White, senior scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Service, recently made the case for spending BP PLC’s oil spill settlement funds hundreds of miles inland, far from the Gulf of Mexico.

Gwen White, senior scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Service, recently made the case for spending BP PLC’s oil spill settlement funds hundreds of miles inland, far from the Gulf of Mexico.

White and her colleagues are targeting the "dead zone," the area lacking oxygen that forms every year and renders large segments of the Gulf uninhabitable to fish. She and her team hope to bring experts on wildlife, water and agriculture together to tackle the fertilizer runoff from Midwest farms responsible for the dead zone. They need money and are eyeing the billions of dollars slated for disbursement under the federal RESTORE Act.

"We developed a strategy for conservation so that we can align our mission across those sectors, to make every dollar count," White said. "The situation is one where there is a recognition that there’s a linkage between the impact of the watershed and the outcomes at the Gulf."


White is pitching her project to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which will distribute nearly $2 billion in spill money. The council has already faced criticism for picking projects far from the Gulf in its first selection round, and the heat will continue as it considers its next batch of favored projects, expected to be announced either later this year or in early 2018.

The council was established under the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, or RESTORE Act, which governs how five states, various federal agencies and the council will divide funds garnered from BP in a court settlement over the devastating 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Roughly $1 billion in early funding from several spill-liable companies has already been portioned out to more than 60 restoration projects, most having nothing to do with the impacts of the 2010 spill. Of some $6.7 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, 20 percent is destined for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, while the remainder goes to Gulf cleanup and enhancement. The RESTORE Council gets to allocate $1.6 billion of this to specially selected restoration projects per a process it has designed.

The council last month voted to approve its latest comprehensive plan for spending the money, after years of debate, deliberation and delay (E&E News PM, Dec. 16, 2016).

Outgoing council head Justin Ehrenwerth said the drawn-out process was necessary to ensure fairness and transparency in allocating resources for Gulf of Mexico ecosystem restoration projects; critics complained of a lack of both in past decisions. The RESTORE Act doesn’t require the council to follow the Administrative Procedure Act process of notification and public comment period, but the council has been following a similar procedure, soliciting comments after projects were selected.

The BP settlement money is expected to begin flowing this year, in regular increments over a period of at least 15 years and possibly up to 17 years.

In managing and diverting these payments, the RESTORE Council and related federal and state agencies will be attempting the world’s largest long-term environmental enhancement over a vast region. The Gulf long has been plagued by unaddressed issues, including the dead zone, slow leaks from aging oil infrastructure, and damage from shipping and pollution caused by runoff from the numerous urban settlements dotting the Gulf Coast.

"This is an historic opportunity," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in his opening remarks to the Dec. 16 council vote. "We’re taking on one of the biggest challenges states and federal agencies have ever taken on from an environmental standpoint."

But critics worry that unrelated projects will be funded using money meant for restoration work.

White is mindful that the dead zone long predates the BP spill, but she and her colleagues strongly believe that their efforts to identify critical sources of agriculture pollution runoff and put in place mitigation efforts are worthy of BP’s money. She’s spearheading the Tallgrass Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative, an initiative that will seek to tap spill money to protect wildlife habitat, watersheds and the Gulf from agricultural runoff.

"Gulf restoration can address species and habitat in the Gulf, but if the water is still devoid of oxygen, it compromises the restoration benefits that can be brought out," she explained in an interview. "We’re trying to be as focused as possible in identifying the portions of the watershed using some of the modeling that’s being done to show where the nutrient impacts are the greatest, where the source is the most critical, and then focusing the watershed and wildlife conservation practices in those areas."

‘Oil wells in Texas’

In December 2015, the RESTORE Council announced its initial funded priorities list (FPL), a dozen projects deemed worthy for the first round of the council’s funding, emphasizing restoration activities in key watersheds. But although observers voiced broad approval of that emphasis in public comments following the initial FPL announcement, specific projects drew objections.

Critics bashed the choice of Bayou Greenways 2020, a project by the Houston Parks Board to conserve land in the Houston metropolitan region. The project’s aim has long been the preservation of open space in the rapidly growing urban center and flood control. The Parks Board essentially buys land along Houston’s waterways and protects these acres from development.

One year ago, Bayou Greenways 2020 was rebranded as a Gulf of Mexico ecological enhancement project. The Parks Board announced last year that it would be receiving over $7.1 million dollars to "create a continuous parks system along Houston’s major waterways."

It’s a land acquisition effort little different from what the Parks Board undertook prior to the availability of BP spill liability funds, but the RESTORE Council selected this pre-existing effort over others centered closer to the Gulf. Houston’s waterways drain into Galveston Bay and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, but a statement by Mayor Sylvester Turner celebrating the funding didn’t even mention the Gulf. The Houston Parks Board declined to comment.

"These dollars will allow us to protect the watershed while also providing important recreational green space on the south side of Houston," Turner said. "Bayou Greenways is a key component to expanding our parks and improving neighborhoods throughout the Bayou City."

Another FPL project drew criticism for allowing a Texas agency to skirt liability by leveraging BP’s money instead of its own.

The RESTORE Council allocated funds to plug leaking oil wells in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, pollution that threatens habitat of the critically endangered whooping crane. Companies responsible for drilling the wells would normally be on the hook for cleaning and closing these leaking wells, or the Railroad Commission of Texas would take over. Gulf spill money was tapped, instead.

During last year’s public meetings hosted by the RESTORE Council, critics called foul on these and other aspects of the first FPL selection process. At one public hearing held in New Orleans, Barney Callahan of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation stated that his organization "does not think the council should fund the plugging of abandoned oil wells in Texas."

Others felt that the project selection process wasn’t inclusive enough and complained the council didn’t do more to incorporate coastal communities, in particular minority communities. For instance, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, representing the Dulac Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw Indians, pleaded for the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to "focus on restoration and land loss, including to preserve ancestral lands."

Louisiana shrimpers of Vietnamese heritage have also organized around the council’s proceedings. At one public hearing in Galveston, members of the group complained of the selection of Bayou Greenways 2020 in the initial FPL, saying they were hoping to see more activity to protect and replenish Gulf shrimp populations.

The RESTORE Council has responded to these complaints, directly and indirectly.

Vietnamese interpretation and translation is now a regular feature of the council’s work.

The council has also adopted some recommendations heard during the 2016 public comment period. For example, the Gulf of Mexico University Research Collaborative submitted online a statement saying that "all projects should include funding for monitoring of restoration measures for at least several years after implementation." The council subsequently announced its intention to explore "the establishment of common monitoring protocols" during the 2017 deliberations.

By taking more time to engage with the public in forthcoming 2017 opportunities, "the theory goes that we will have better projects and programs as a result of these discussions," Ehrenwerth said during a public briefing. Deciding on the second FPL will take more time, as the council has advertised its desire to incorporate larger-scale projects.

But more public forums are likely, as the council has pledged to move forward with even more public efforts "to talk about and brainstorm how we can ensure that the whole is more than the sum of its parts," thereby improving the odds "that we really get the biggest bang with the $16 billion that we have to work with here," as Ehrenwerth put it.

"If we do this well and do this right, then I think it provides an incredible model that can be replicated in other large-scale ecosystems throughout the U.S. and throughout the world," Vilsack said.