It took Gulf Coast lawmakers more than two years of prodding and negotiating to persuade a divided Congress their communities deserve most of the billions of dollars BP will pay in fines for its role in the 2010 oil spill.
Now comes another challenge: figuring out how to spend that money.
Officials in the five states affected — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — have some time to weigh which projects and programs will best help the Gulf Coast recover from the nation’s worst environmental disaster.
The first payments of the estimated $5 billion to $20 billion in fines imposed by the federal government aren’t expected until early next year, after a scheduled civil trial. If a settlement is reached before that, the money could arrive sooner.
“It’s a monumental law,” Brian Moore, legislative director at the National Audubon Society, said of the RESTORE Act, which passed Congress last week as part of a larger transportation bill and will be signed into law by President Obama on Friday.
“The next step is just deciding the size of the fines and pressing onto people as much as possible the need for this to happen quickly,” Moore said. “This place has been devastated really — the environment and the economy. We need to fix it fast.”
Under the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of the fine money levied against BP is earmarked for the five Gulf Coast states. It’s an unprecedented arrangement. Typically, such financial penalties go to an oil-spill liability trust fund and the U.S. Treasury’s general fund for distribution nationwide.
Much of the money is expected to finance projects already on the drawing board, including some proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Earlier this year, Louisiana passed a 50-year coastal plan that calls for 109 projects, including hurricane protection and coastal restoration.
“Our priorities will be the implementation of that plan,” said Garrett Graves, director of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “Making an investment in ecosystem restoration, making other investments to improve the resiliencies of some of our coastal communities — that’s where we plan on prioritizing the [early] investments.”
Gulf Coast advocacy groups will work to make sure state and local officials “do the next part, right,” said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental group based in Mobile, Ala.
“We are not finished with our work,” Callaway said. “We have a long, long way to go still, but the biggest and hardest hurdle has passed — getting it through Congress.”
In Alabama, Callaway’s group is pressing for a project to build 100 miles of coastal oyster reefs. She hopes to see similar projects throughout the region, which she said has lost thousands of miles of the reefs over the last six decades.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant named a team Tuesday to recommend state projects.
“Our work in this state is just beginning,” he said in a statement. “The (oil spill) impacted our Gulf Coast in many complex and serious ways ... We will not rest until the Gulf Coast is made whole.”
Environmental groups will push to require BP to pay the maximum amount of fines.
“They’re big boys ... they messed up,” said Paul Harrison, senior director of water programs for the Environmental Defense Fund. “They need to pay.”
Harrison said the groups will focus on making sure BP “lives up to its promise of doing the right thing and making the Gulf Coast whole ... better beaches, better fisheries, better wetlands, clean water and a better economy.”
From the outset, sponsors of the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies) Act said most of the fine money should go to Gulf Coast communities because they know best how to spend it.
But they attached a few conditions:
Thirty percent of the money will be controlled by the 11-member Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which will develop a comprehensive restoration plan. Members include all five governors (or their designees), the secretaries of the Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Interior departments, the secretary of the Army and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sixty-five percent of the money will be controlled by state and local governments for such things as tourism, the environment and the economy.
Of that, 35 percent will be distributed equally among the five states for economic and ecological recovery. The rest will be distributed to the states based on a formula that takes into account factors such as miles of beachfront and population.
The remaining 5 percent of the fine money will finance research, with half going to the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and half going to a “center of excellence” in each state.
Grover Robinson IV, an Escambia County (Fla.) commissioner, said many projects, such as beach renourishment and storm water systems, are logical candidates for RESTORE Act money.
“The best news is that we’ve got a plan and a structure without the money,” he said. “That allows us the proper time to go do this. There’s no rush to immediately try to make everything happen and go make decisions, because we don’t have everything yet.”
While each state has a different process for determining how funds will be spent, local advocacy groups hope officials will craft comprehensive plans that include projects with wide reach, long-term viability and public input.
“We are figuring out great plans for how we can do real live, giant restoration projects on the Gulf Coast,” Callaway said.