Eighty. For Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, that’s the magic number: the percentage of Clean Water Act fines BP will eventually pay that are now legally required to go to Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration work.
When President Obama signed the RESTORE Act into law in July, he and Congress gave the conservation movement one of its biggest paydays in recent memory, says Chris Canfield, Audubon’s Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway vice president. (During the two years it took to get the bill passed, Audubon members generated more than 115,000 emails and calls to Congress.) “It represents a collaboration across states that, let’s just say, are very different politically and culturally. To get them together on one piece of legislation, especially in this Congress, it’s a huge feat.”
How big a pot of money—$4.3 billion to $21 billion—as well as which projects get funded is yet to be determined. Starting in January the federal government will decide whether BP must pay the $1,100-per-barrel fines and damages delineated by the Clean Water Act (that adds up to $4.3 billion) or if it’s guilty of gross negligence (which would up the price per barrel the company must fork over). If the latter occurs, BP could appeal the decision.
Ultimately, each state will decide how to divvy up the money it receives, but some of the funds will certainly go to projects environmental groups and states are already planning, says Garret Graves, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.
Louisiana, for instance, recently outlined projects to reconnect the Mississippi River’s historic distributaries with adjacent coastal areas. Levees erected in the 1930s diverted marsh-building nutrients and freshwater from the wetlands. But it’s an ecosystem that 400 bird species and aquatic organisms like crawfish and the endangered pallid sturgeon rely on for breeding, overwintering, and spawning. “Our ecosystems, our livelihood, our culture,” Graves says. “It’s all tied to the health of that ecosystem.”
Audubon also has shovel-ready projects to propose, such as installing a reef barrier to prevent erosion off Florida’s Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary. “We’re looking at systemic solutions and not just one-off things,” Canfield says. “That’s the golden opportunity here.”
The bill allows for spending on tourism and infrastructure, too. “That could mean casinos,” says Chris Mann, a Pew Environment Group senior officer. “I don’t see what that has to do with the oil spill.” He chalks up these additions—watering down from the Senate version—to the political process.
Rather than putting fines on hold for future spills, as the old Oil Spill Pollution Act did, the new bill funnels them back to the damaged area. “It certainly provides a source of funding that has not been there before,” Mann says. While throwing cash at the cut doesn’t change how deep it runs, the money will let the spill wounds start to heal.