NEW ORLEANS — More than two years after the catastrophic BP oil spill, environmental groups say billions of dollars the British oil giant is expected to spend on restoration should go toward buying tens of thousands of acres of coastal land for conservation, rebuilding Louisiana’s eroding wetlands and creating nearly 200 miles of oyster reefs.
Under the Oil Pollution Act, companies must pay to restore areas fouled by a spill. The amount BP will have to pay is subject to ongoing litigation with the government, which also will choose how to spend the money. Regardless, the company is expected to pay billions of dollars for the more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled from its out-of-control well after the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010.
In a report released Wednesday, the environmental groups laid out 39 priority proposals for spending the money in one the first overarching visions of restoration of the Gulf.
The report recommends a massive $500 million restoration of the Louisiana coast, the purchase of large tracts of coastal land in Florida, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi for conservation, plugging unused oil and gas wells in the Gulf, spending about $165 million in restoring Mobile Bay, cleaning up marine debris across the Gulf, building nearly 200 miles of oyster reefs and setting up long-term monitoring to track the Gulf’s health.
“Without knowing what the actual payment will be, our assumption is that this will be the biggest environmental restoration ever,” said Stan Senner, director of conservation at the Ocean Conservancy. He was the chief restoration planner after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and helped develop the restoration model for the Gulf.
Federal and state lawyers are in negotiations with BP over how much the company should pay for the damage its spill caused. BP faces a January trial unless a settlement can be reached before then.
The report was sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, Oxfam and the National Wildlife Federation.
The environmental groups emphasized their portfolio of projects were suggestions only and based on limited information about the oil spill’s effects on the environment. The government has not disclosed its findings on what damage has been caused by the spill.
The groups delivered the report to a council of federal and state officials overseeing restoration efforts. The group, known as the trustee council, is in discussions with BP over how much the company should pay. This legal process, known as the natural resources damage assessment, is secretive as BP and government scientists investigate how badly the environment was damaged.
The environmental groups said their recommendations would be adjusted based on those findings becoming public.
Garret Graves, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s representative on the trustee council, said the recommendations were not helpful.
“The environmentalists’ report is so out of touch that I put my copy in the recycling bin,” he said. He said it appeared the groups saw “an opportunity to pick pet projects and fulfill their political agendas.”
The environmentalists said the report’s intent was the opposite of that.
“This is about getting people to think about what restoration could look like,” said Paul Harrison, the senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s water program. “We need a comprehensive approach.”
He warned that states might try to get projects funded that would not do the greatest good to the ecosystem.
Edward P. Richards, a professor of law at Louisiana State University who’s studying Louisiana’s ongoing restoration plans, was critical of the report. He questioned spending money on areas that saw little direct damage from the oil spill. Florida and Texas had little oil wash up on their shores.
Richards said he was struck by the irony of environmental groups campaigning to spend so much money on places that might be submerged by sea-level rise. For example he said it was unwise to spend large sums on diverting rivers to rebuild land in coastal Louisiana, something the report recommends.
“River deltas do not build in the face of ocean rise,” he said. “The only science we have on the effect of river diversions is that the water that causes the dead zone at the end of the Mississippi is also bad for the marsh lands.”
Louisiana recently adopted a master plan to rebuild its coast over 50 years with $50 billion and the plan calls for river diversions to funnel sediment and freshwater back into eroding basins. Louisiana has lost about 1,900 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s and the state is working to hold the sea back.
The scientific community is not in agreement about the effectiveness of river diversions. Many scientists believe river diversions can work to re-establish the natural order of the Mississippi delta while others believe they will not do the job and also cause unintended harmful consequences.
Just how much money BP will end up paying in ecosystem restoration is uncertain.
Exxon paid $900 million for the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that caused 11 million gallons to leak into Prince William Sound. Based on the criteria from what Exxon paid per barrel of oil spilled and adjusted for inflation BP could pay about $31 billion.
But experts say BP is unlikely to pay that much. BP can argue that the spill’s effects were minimized by the Gulf’s warm waters, oil-eating bacteria and other factors. Also, the Gulf has been soiled by past spills and natural oil seeps, so the oil giant could say it’s too hard to pinpoint what is BP damage and what isn’t.
However state and federal lawyers argue that the damage was extensive and that the Gulf’s marine environment is more varied and rich than that of Prince William Sound.
A look at proposals on how to restore Gulf
Environmental groups released a report on Wednesday making 39 recommendations of how to repair damage to the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem caused by the catastrophic BP oil spill in 2010. The amount BP will have to pay is subject to ongoing litigation with the government, which also will choose how to spend the money.
Below are some of the environmental groups’ costlier proposals.
—Expand the Texas Chenier Plain Refuge by 64,260 acres. Cost: $90 million
—Build sub-tidal reef in Matagorda Bay within footprint of historical Half Moon Reef. Cost: $3.8 million
—Restoring Shamrock Island in Nueces County by creating sea-grasses, marsh and mangroves. Cost: $3 million
—Buying land around the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Apalachee Bay. Cost: $30 million.
—Sea-grass and oyster restoration along the Florida Panhandle. Cost: $15 million.
—Buying 69,453 acres to help conserve St. Vincent Sound and Lake Wimico near Apalachicola. Cost: $100 million
—Mobile Bay restoration and building 100 miles of intertidal oyster reefs. Cost: $95 million
—Reconnecting tidal exchanges within the Mobile-Tensaw Delta by building new bridges under the Mobile Causeway. Cost: $70 million
—Buying coastal properties in Alabama coastal counties to aid conservation. Cost: $125 million
—Restoration of 3,622 acres of coastal habitat. Cost: $7.8 million
—Wetlands and oyster restoration in Hancock County, restoring up to 60,000 feet of oyster reef. Cost: $18.8 million
—Restoring 1,000 acres of coastal marsh along Mississippi coast. Cost: $13.6 million
—Barataria basin restoration with new dunes, marsh, oyster reefs and filling in oil canals. Cost: $378 million
—Breton basin restoration with armoring marsh, oyster reefs and building up Chandeleur islands. Cost: $100 million
—Building 70 miles of oyster reefs in Cameron, Terrebonne and St. Bernard parishes. Cost: $70 million
Open waters of the Gulf
—Plugging and removing nonproducing oil and gas wells in waters off the coast of Louisiana. Cost: $31 million
—Place observers aboard fishing vessels to monitor catches for marine mammals, sea turtles and bluefin tuna. Cost: $32.5 million
—Cleaning up marine debris across the Gulf. Cost: $10 million