WASHINGTON -- In the coming years, unprecedented billions will be spent on restoration in the Gulf of Mexico, a vital American ecosystem damaged by the most catastrophic oil spill in U.S. history.
Gulf states, especially Louisiana, will see billions of dollars devoted to restoring habitat and coastline hurt not just by the 2010 BP oil spill, but also by decades of oil and gas exploration, U.S. agricultural practices and the management of the Mississippi and the rivers that drain into it on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
There’s $5 billion for restoration and research so far, with at least $5 billion more – and the possibility of $20 billion – from money BP might have to pay in civil fines, depending on the outcome of a trial set for early next year. It’s a vast amount of money so large – and with so much potential – that one environmentalist called it "funny money."
With that money – funny or not – comes much hope. But those who live and work in the Gulf of Mexico also are wary, as are the environmental groups keeping watch on the post-oil spill environment.
"The trick is now, with all of these processes directed toward ecosystem restoration in some form or another . . . is how are we going to make all of these things talk to each other and inform each other and learn from each other’s mistakes and utilize the same science?” asked Bethany Kraft, director of the Gulf Restoration Program of the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization. “That’s something we’ve got to commit to and figure out.”
Some projects already are underway as part of the damage assessment process BP faces for the impact of the spill on the environment. BP has pledged $1 billion for those projects, which require a careful accounting of exactly how much damage the spill did so that BP makes up for it.
So far, they’re on the smaller scale: projects such as replacing artificial lights on Alabama and Florida beaches so it’s easier for sea turtles to nest, and rebuilding oyster beds in Mississippi and Louisiana.
But millions of that billion-dollar fund will go toward creating barrier islands along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts, and buying conservation lands. Those larger-scale projects are expected give the region more resiliency in future natural or manmade disasters – but they’re all related to the damages caused by the spill.
Many groups interested in the restoration process were keeping a close eye Tuesday on the first meeting of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which was established under the federal RESTORE Act this year. The law outlines how civil fines assessed on BP will be spent and directs the council to develop and oversee a comprehensive plan to help restore the ecosystem and economy of the Gulf Coast region.
It’s not the only council, though.
A separate board of trustees is overseeing the $1 billion to be devoted to projects deemed worthy under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, overseen by the government. It determines what specific damage BP did and what the company must do to remedy it.
And $2.4 billion of the $4 billion assessed in criminal fines will be overseen by the non-profit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, in a plea agreement brokered by the Justice Department with BP. Half of that money is to be spent in Louisiana.