Texas spends Gulf oil spill cash on conservation

HOUSTON — Texas is the first state to confirm a deal to spend settlement money from the Gulf oil spill for long-term coastal conservation, working with a private nonprofit to cut through red tape and buy 80 acres of prime habitat for endangered whooping cranes.

A three-way deal calls for MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC, a partner in the ill-fated offshore well, to give $2 million to the Texas Nature Conservancy, which will use it to buy a tract of coastal land where whooping cranes spend the winter. The nonprofit will then give the property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to be incorporated into Goose Island State Park. The contract with the landowner has been signed and the handover is tentatively set to be finalized by the end of May.

The Associated Press was given the details of the deal signed Tuesday before it was made public. The arrangement allowed the state agency to bypass cumbersome red tape that often slows down government business and to quickly acquire land that likely would have been sold and subdivided for residential use.

The $2 million is part of a $90 million settlement MOEX made with the federal government and the Gulf states after the 2010 rig explosion that killed 11 people and caused the worst offshore spill in U.S. history. MOEX and several other companies partnered with BP to drill the well and are now being held accountable for the disaster.

All the settlements include setting aside money — $20 million in MOEX’s case — for coastal conservation projects, similar to what was done after Exxon Valdez.

After the 1989 oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, trustees dedicated $400 million of the $900 million settlement for long-term conservation and restoration, helping preserve more than 600,000 acres of habitat for animals hurt by the disaster, said Stan Senner, who was the science coordinator for the Exxon Valdez trustee council.

“The strategy of protecting habitats for the species actually worked,” said Senner, who is now director of conservation science for the Ocean Conservancy. “They did learn a lesson from the Exxon Valdez. I think there are a number of things they can do in the Gulf region that do provide for long-term conservation benefit and one of those is going to be protecting habitat as is proposed in Texas.”

While all five Gulf states have wish lists of coastal conservation and restoration projects, this is the first project to be announced since the settlement was reached in February.

Until now, most money spent has been either emergency cash funneled toward cleanup or urgent projects mostly paid from a pot of $20 billion BP set aside to pay individual claims in the immediate aftermath of the spill. More recent settlements, including with MOEX, include civil penalties the companies owe under the Clean Water Act and other federal rules.

Texas got about $6.5 million from MOEX and decided that half would go to the office responsible for preserving and overseeing its land and water resources and half would be spent by the parks service.

Texas was able to cut the first deal because it had already pinpointed a few projects that were almost ready to go and working with the Nature Conservancy, a private nonprofit that can spend money and do research without dealing with governmental red tape, allowed it to speed things along.

“There’s very solid agreement on what the priorities are, so we can move quickly on execution,” said Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas and one of the people involved in nailing down the contract.

Ted Hollingsworth, the parks service’s director of land conservation, said it has little of its own money for land acquisition and was looking even before the settlement for money to buy the property north of Corpus Christi. One of the things that made the project urgent, he said, was the fear that it would be sold to a private developer and more habitat would be destroyed.

“From a simple real estate perspective, subdivision residential development would have been a very clear use for that property,” Hollingsworth said. “There was a high probability that the area would have been further compromised and divided if it had remained in the private arena.”

The 80-acre property provides land and water habitat for the whooping cranes, is adjacent to seagrass that helps prevent coastal erosion, oyster beds, marshes, salt flats and important aquatic habitat and includes a mature forest, which Hollingsworth said is important for migratory song birds.

“These birds cross the Gulf of Mexico, they leave the Yucatan, they leave Mexico … they fly several days nonstop,” he said, “and by the time they reach the Texas Gulf they have to have a place to rest and eat and these forests are absolutely critical.”