WASHINGTON — With the federal RESTORE Act now law, state officials, environmental groups and others are trying to figure out how billions of dollars’ worth of coastal restoration projects will be put into action.
The projects, to be funded from fines from the BP oil disaster, could create nearly 60,000 jobs in Louisiana.
Questions remain, however, about the structure to administer the largest ecosystem project the country has ever attempted both in scope and in the amount of money expected to be available for the work.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into Gulf waters and along Louisiana’s coast. The RESTORE Act signed into law last month as part of the federal transportation bill directs 80 percent of the BP Clean Water Act fine money — from a potential total of $20 billion or more — to the five Gulf Coast states: Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
The new law put into place a 180-day deadline — more than 30 days have already passed — to publish a draft comprehensive plan.
That is a “very tight deadline” when organizational issues remain and the U.S. Department of Justice and BP have yet to “get religion” to reach a settlement deal, said Garret Graves, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities.
Also, no appointments have been made yet to the newly created Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which will develop the plan.
What is known, Graves said, is the funds will represent the “down payment” on the state’s $50 billion master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection that the Legislature approved earlier this year.
“We are trying to prioritize,” he said. “We are trying to sequence the projects that are the best fit.”
Taryn Tuss, communications director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the Obama administration is working closely with states on the RESTORE Act implementation and the formation of the council. But she said she had no details to offer on timelines or other specifics.
Community and conservation groups are wondering when and if they will be allowed to provide substantive input.
It is not clear how to get involved because it also is unclear who is leading the process, said Julia Hathaway, program director of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign for the National Wildlife Federation. In the meantime, she said, staffers at the National Wildlife Federation are talking to as many federal agency representatives as they can.
Public engagement was one of the concerns that kept the Sierra Club from endorsing the RESTORE Act while it was working its way through Congress, said Jill Mastrototaro, Gulf Coast campaign director with the Sierra Club. The act does not include any formal citizen advisory group or outline how the process can be made transparent to the public, she said.
Although the act says the draft comprehensive plan developed by the council will include public input, details of how that will be done are not included.
“From our sense, the devil’s in the details,” Mastrototaro said.
The state’s master plan’s top priorities are on building up barrier islands and wildlife and fisheries habitats, marsh and wetlands creation, river and waterway diversion projects, water pumping projects, and new and restored levees.
About $500 million in barrier island projects should get under way by January, starting in the Barataria Bay area, Graves said.
While “luxury” projects like building visitors centers are nice, Graves said, the state will not prioritize anything like that, and the parishes that also get BP’s fine money should not, either.
“How embarrassing would it be a year later if the thing (a new visitor center) is under water,” Graves said.
How much and when
There is some debate over whether the RESTORE Act is best for Louisiana because it means sharing significantly with four other states even though Louisiana by far had the most heavily damaged shoreline from oil buildup — about 650 miles of oiled coastline in the state — and also the most bird, mammal and fish deaths.
But the alternative options are much riskier for Louisiana, said Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.
Relying on the settlement talks or the litigation could have resulted in all the money going straight to the U.S. Treasury with an unclear amount affecting Louisiana, Davis said. At least now, he added, a strong framework is in place.
“The RESTORE Act is a hugely effective change,” Davis said. “We just don’t know yet what is the result of that change.”
The RESTORE Act was backed by the entire Louisiana congressional delegation, but the state effort was led by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Scalise said, even if it is not perfect.
“Louisiana will get the lion’s share of the BP fine money, as we rightly deserve,” Landrieu added in an email response. “It’s important to remember that without the RESTORE Act, Washington would have gotten the money and that Louisiana would have gotten nothing.”
The reality remains that the RESTORE Act applies only to the federal Clean Water Act, which dictates BP and the offending parties can be fined from $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel leaked, creating a range from roughly $5 billion to $21 billion or so.
So the Justice Department and BP could end up with a settlement that is simply a giant paycheck without calling it a fine, and a refusal from BP to admit any gross negligence, Davis said.
If that occurs, the RESTORE Act would not even be used for the money. But the existence of the RESTORE Act framework would still be the unofficial guide for how to use the money, he said.
Graves said the fines should end up being more than $20 billion because BP is “failing miserably” in its response, with about one million barrels of oil that leaked still unaccounted for.
“Maybe we just need to put a price tag on it and then they’ll find it,” Graves said.
How the formula works
The RESTORE Act requires dividing 35 percent of the Clean Water Act fines equally among the five states. Of Louisiana’s 7 percent, 4.59 percent is funneled through the state and 2.1 percent goes directly to 20 coastal zone parishes.
The next 60 percent will be disbursed by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which will have appointees from each affected state and from several federal agencies, such as the Interior Department and the Coast Guard.
Of that 60 percent, 30 percent is given out with priorities for the states and coastal populations most affected by the oil.
“That was something we fought for,” Scalise said.
The other 30 percent is for the council to decide based on a coastal restoration plan it develops.
Out of the remaining 5 percent, 2.5 percent goes to science, observation and Gulf monitoring programs, and the last 2.5 percent is for Centers of Excellence Research Grants, which can fund academic research for Gulf issues.
The draft plan is expected to build on the findings of a coastal plan adopted last year by the president’s Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force. The final plan is supposed to be approved by the end of July.
Graves said the tentative plan is for the grant funds to go through the Baton Rouge-based Water Institute of the Gulf, which was formed last year as an independent, nonprofit research group that will help coordinate research for federal and state coastal restoration and hurricane protection work.
Because of the looming January date to begin the civil litigation against BP in New Orleans, Davis said, he does not expect any settlement to be reached until near the time the trial begins, if even then.
A lengthy courtroom battle remains a viable possibility, Davis said.
“And we have no idea of what will occur,” added John Cruden, president of the Environmental Law Institute.
However, there will be money, and it will be significant, Cruden said.
Although the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council will draft a comprehensive plan, it will not just be another planning effort that doesn’t result in action because money to do the projects is unavailable.
“Here, we know there will be money; it’s just a question of when,” Cruden said.
Scalise, Graves and others will hold a news conference Thursday in New Orleans, pressing to maintain the priorities only on coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects.
As the process is ongoing, business groups like Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber are advocating for Louisiana businesses to get involved and benefit in the contracting processes for projects, GNO Inc. President Michael Hecht said.
They also are partnering with south Louisiana community colleges and other institutions for workforce training programs to help fill the anticipated influx of jobs. A recent GNO Inc. report says the RESTORE Act could create nearly 60,000 new jobs for Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast states in 10 years, and almost 80,000 jobs within 50 years.
These potential results make the RESTORE Act hugely important for Louisiana, Hecht said, especially when the loss of the coastlines affects so many people’s way of life.
Editor’s note: The headline on this story was modified on Aug. 13, 2012, to correct the previous headline.