Florida to benefit in 2015 from portion of estimated $18 billion in BP oil disaster fines

CAPE CORAL -- Jostling is expected to be fierce for a chunk of the estimated $18 billion in Gulf Coast restoration funding from BP Clean Water Act fines in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

Funding for Gulf Coast restoration will begin in earnest next year, a top U.S. Department of Commerce adviser said Friday at the Saltwater Summit in Cape Coral.

"I'm sure the discussions will be interesting as to how the money is divvied up," said Christine Shepard of Punta Gorda, director of science for the Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Program.

How much BP will actually pay in fines is still being negotiated. BP could appeal any damage award, which federal officials say they want to avoid in order to begin funding Gulf Coast restoration projects as soon as possible.

Shepard's comments, made on the final day of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Saltwater Summit, were in keeping with the diplomatic stances the five affected Gulf Coast states -- Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas -- have maintained in the aftermath of the largest crude oil spill in U.S. history.

Shepard said the first focus for funding should be on whether people actually benefit from proposed restoration projects.

"We should not just restore habitat for habitat's sake," she said. "Where can we get the most bang for our buck?"

Bare-knuckle politics could come into play as states seek to link real damages with fair funding solutions, said Jerome Zeringue, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Zeringue told the roomful of scientists, politicians and media members at the Cape Coral Westin Resort that his home state of Louisiana sustained by far the most damage from the disaster as it was closest to the spill. For example, he said, 15.1 million pounds of oil sludge has been removed from 760 miles of affected coastline in the Pelican State compared with 74,000 pounds from 176 miles from Florida's coastline.

The first round of funding for restoration projects will be announced after the Nov. 17 deadline to submit project requests, said Teresa Christopher, senior adviser to the secretary for Gulf Restoration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Next year we expect to fund projects, which has everyone excited about it," Christopher said to applause.

It's been estimated by the Nature Conservancy, and other organizations, that 5 million barrels of crude oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruined Deepwater Horizon mining equipment. BP will be required to pay $1,300 per barrel spilled under the recent federal court negligence ruling and $4,300 per barrel under the gross negligence header.

The RESTORE Act dictates 80 percent of the BP fines be invested in Gulf Coast restoration programs. Only $653 million is available now, but Christopher indicated a quick settlement would make billions available within the next year or two at most. Christopher said five "buckets" of money will be established as part of the RESTORE Act's Gulf Coast recovery funding plan.

Bucket No. 1 would split 35 percent of the funding equally among all five states. Zeringue's presentation indicated Texas had one mile of affected coastline and would receive $56 million from this pot initially -- the same as every other affected state, all of which sustained much greater damage.

Buckets No. 2 and 3 would distribute 60 percent of the BP proceeds through the RESTORE Act Council, which will subject the council to intense lobbying efforts.

Buckets No. 4 and 5 would contain 2.5 percent of the BP penalty money apiece and be administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Treasury, respectively.

The Nature Conservancy has advocated a three-prong approach to restoration:

Restore shorelines.

Protect freshwater resources.

Help communities benefit from Gulf Coast restoration.

A recent TNC study indicates, for example, that investing $150 million to fund construction of 100 miles of oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico would restore critical natural infrastructure. But even though TNC advocates the oyster reef restoration, any funded project will require oversight to maximize effectiveness, Shepard cautioned.

"Monitoring should be required," Shepard said. "Without monitoring you don't know if it's working. As the funding comes down the pipeline, it's really important to spend it wisely."

Terry O'Connor, Herald night metro editor, can be reached at 941-745-7040.