The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

National News

July 11, 2012

BP oil spill fines could boost Everglades restoration

WASHINGTON — Everglades restoration backers are aiming to get a big piece of the billions of dollars of fines that oil giant BP is expected to pay for polluting the Gulf of Mexico and disrupting Florida’s delicate ecology during the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010.

BP’s fines are expected to range from $5 billion to $21 billion, and most of the money would go toward restoring the marshes, fishing industry and oil-damaged businesses and resources along the Gulf Coast. But environmental leaders estimate that hundreds of millions of dollars could be devoted to ecological projects all the way down to South Florida.

They’re not just dreaming.

Last month, Congress passed a bill that will steer 80 percent of any fine money to Florida and other Gulf Coast states. And while the Florida Legislature passed a law last year that says 75 percent of the state’s share must be devoted to the oil-damaged counties along its northwest coast, the rest can be spent on ecological restoration elsewhere.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force last month that the BP money would provide significant funding for conservation and that he considers the Everglades “a great example for the work that we do for conservation and for jobs.”

Salazar’s encouraging words and the tantalizing prospect of a giant pot of restoration money prompted environmentalists to start drawing up proposals designed to buffer the coast from future oil spills and to clean and store water that now rushes out to sea. These proposals will focus on Florida’s west coast but affect the entire Everglades watershed and potentially free up other federal and state money for projects in South and Central Florida.

The pie is potentially so huge that even a small slice would make a major impact on the re-plumbing work in the Everglades.

“This is really the largest source of funding for ecological restoration in the history of the world,” said David White of St. Petersburg, director of the Gulf restoration campaign for the National Wildlife Federation. “This is a big deal for the ecology for the Gulf of Mexico and by extension the Everglades system, which is part of that ecology.”

BP and its contractors are trying to settle a federal court case in New Orleans accusing them of violating the Oil Pollution Act - which is guided by standards set by the Clean Water Act - when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010 and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

Fines under the law would amount to $1,300 per barrel if the companies are guilty of simple negligence - or $4,300 per barrel if they are guilty of gross negligence.

Environmentalists say a national commission co-chaired by former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham that investigated the disaster essentially established gross negligence, prompting them to think the total fines will reach as high as $21 billion.

A sweeping transportation bill passed by Congress on June 29 included legislation known as The Restore Act, which says 80 percent of BP’s eventual fine payments must go to the five Gulf states - Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas - most affected by the spill.

The Restore Act also established a formula for distributing the money:

Pot One: 35 percent - as much as $7.35 billion - to be divided equally among the Gulf states, or 7 percent (nearly $1.5 billion) for each. The 2011 Florida law says 75 percent of the state’s share of this pot - $1.1 billion - must go to eight hard-hit Gulf counties, and 25 percent can go to the rest. The still works out to $367 million.

Pot Two: 30 percent - up to $6.3 billion - to be distributed by a federal-state ecosystem restoration council comprised of six federal members and five state members.

Pot Three: 30 percent to pay for state proposals for environmental restoration and economic recovery work. These plans must be approved by the federal-state council.

Pot Four: 5 percent - just over $1 billion - to ecosystem monitoring and fisheries work administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and scientific Centers of Excellence in each Gulf state.

Money for South or Central Florida projects potentially could come from any of these pots. The council is expected to give priority to plans that promise lasting protection for the Gulf and the coastline against future spills.

These could be new proposals, but “shovel-ready projects” already designed and studied for their environmental impact - including much of the work surrounding the Everglades - could have an advantage.

Audubon of Florida, which pushed hard for passage of the Restore Act, is considering making proposals that would clean polluted water now channeled into the Gulf and store and release it when needed to nurture the Everglades.

“That would put one less stress on Lake Okeechobee, which helps everybody in South Florida,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy at Audubon of Florida.

Southeast Florida is tied to the Gulf by the Loop Current, which brings water - and potentially an oil slick - around the Florida Keys and up to the shores of Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Everglades watershed is also interrelated, so that work along the west coast indirectly affects water projects closer to the east coast.

Using oil money in the western Everglades might allow more federal and state restoration funding to be devoted to the central and eastern Everglades.

The money could eclipse any one year’s federal appropriation for Everglades restoration, usually less than $200 million. The oil money would come at no expense to taxpayers, and it would not need to be matched by the state.

“This thing has statewide impact,” said Jay Liles, policy consultant for the Florida Wildlife Federation in Tallahassee. “It mostly affects the west coast, but nobody needs to exclude any of these ideas. It just has to have a nexus to the Gulf.”

 

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