The payoff may be years away, but Florida stakeholders are already coordinating efforts to make sure the state gets its share of BP oil spill compensation in what could be the largest Gulf restoration effort in history.
Two weeks after President Barack Obama signed the RESTORE Act into law, organizations that are traditional opponents of each other are working toward the same goal of securing billions of dollars from the company for damage done by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which sent nearly 4 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf. It was the worst such spill in U.S. history.
Calling it an unprecedented opportunity to use private money for public good, environmental supporters say it should be used to restore and purchase strategic parcels of environmentally sensitive lands from willing sellers in the Big Bend and along the eight-county region most severely impacted by the spill.
"We have an opportunity to do some of the large-scale projects that have been put off by the tight budget," said Preston Robertson, vice president and general counsel for the Florida Wildlife Federation. "This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect these coastal ecosystems."
Business groups, meanwhile, say project selection should also be based on how it plays into regional efforts to bolster the economic viability of the region, by shoring up commercial fishing, tourism and other coastal industries.
"The tourism and hospitality industry is the driving force in Florida's economy and it was tremendously compromised after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill," said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Signed into law July 6, the RESTORE Act earmarks 80 percent of penalties paid by BP under the Clean Water Act to establish a trust fund to support restoration programs in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas, the five coastal states affected by the spill.
The company could be on the hook for up to $21 billion in penalties and fines. Officials estimate revenues flowing into the RESTORE trust fund at between $4 billion and $16.8 billion.
The plan calls for taking 35 percent of the trust fund and divvying it up equally between the five states. Additional funds will be dispersed based on proposals to restore ecosystems, fisheries, marine and wildlife habitats, beaches, barrier islands, dunes and coastal wetlands.
Panhandle officials say now that the agreement has been signed, they will begin setting up review processes to evaluate programs and provide the justifications needed to compete successfully for limited funds.
"Each of the counties has to come up with a multiyear plan to address restoration," said Lane Lynchard, Santa Rosa County commissioner. "That is going to require a lot of public input. We are starting the process now of setting up a board to review that input."
Business groups have been organizing since the spill to secure state money and help local businesses and workers access it through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. They hope to build on that cooperation and expand efforts to rejuvenate the economy, which is so closely tied to the health of the Gulf.
We are encouraged by the recent allocation of funds through the RESTORE Act and will continue to work with federal officials to access those funds for the states impacted areas," Dover said.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, are determined not to get pushed to the back seat when negotiations begin and are working together on a coordinated slate of priorities.
A study published last month by the Walton Family Foundation estimated that focusing BP money on restoring wetlands and other natural resources would translate into nearly 75,000 jobs in the first 10 years in the five-state region.
Specific projects ready to go include expanding the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County and habitat improvements in Apalachicola Bay.
"We have been meeting with our partners in Florida to lay out a list of projects that we think are tied into Gulf restoration," Robertson said.