Gulf oil spill funds could boost Valley conservation - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Gulf oil spill funds could boost Valley conservation

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Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 10:15 pm

The first instance of Texas coastal habitat conservation made possible by payouts from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster took place in Cameron County.

Potentially, millions of dollars more could flow to environmental conservation and/or restoration in the county. It depends on many factors, including how much of a priority the state places on proposals from the Rio Grande Valley as opposed to those from farther up the coast.

Last fall, with a little more than $1 million from an early legal settlement associated with the 2010 spill, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service bought three land tracts totaling 186 acres on South Padre Island and made them part of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The money was part of a $70 million criminal settlement against MOEX Offshore, a minor contractor for BP.

So said Tim Richardson, who championed the sale in his role as government affairs director for the American Land Conservancy, which initially secured the tracts from a private owner.

“That 186 acres is permanently protected,” Richardson said.

A lot more money for environmental projects along the Gulf coast is coming, eventually. Exactly how much depends on the outcome of a civil trial under way in New Orleans to determine whether BP was guilty of “gross” versus “ordinary” negligence in allowing the disaster, Richardson said.

“The difference between those arguments will mean a big difference in the spill settlement,” he added. “The judge will announce that by Sept. 1.”

In the meantime, more than a dozen proposals for spending RESTORE Act funds and other payments resulting from the BP spill have been submitted from the Valley — most from Cameron County — to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Gulf Spill Restoration program.

Most of the proposals have to do with habitat conservation, restoration and protection at various sites near the coast, with Laguna Atascosa figuring prominently. Kemp’s ridley sea turtle “restoration” is included, as are proposals for a nature park in Los Fresnos and a “Marine Response/Marine Life Center” at Andy Bowie Park on the Island.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has received dozens of other proposals from elsewhere along the Texas coast.

On Tuesday, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund released the results of a study, “Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy,” that it said underscores the direct link between the health of the Gulf’s ecosystems and the economic health of the Gulf region.

For instance, Texas’ 14 coastal counties are home to nearly 3,800 wildlife tourism-related businesses, while state and local governments generate almost $800 million in tax revenue from tourism, according to the study. Wildlife tourism in Texas, including recreational fishing, hunting and wildlife watching, generates more than $5 billion in spending annually, the study concluded.

In light of the importance of ecosystems to the economy, it’s vital that money from the Deepwater Horizon disaster be used to “properly and effectively restore the fragile Gulf Coast ecosystems,” the EDF said.

Although the spill didn’t affect the Texas coast, it did affect marine species that migrate to the Texas coast — sea turtles, for instance. Congress also wanted to “pay back” the Gulf states that historically have produced 80 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and gas revenue, namely Texas and Louisiana, Richardson said.

Andy Jones, director of the Texas office of The Conservation Fund, said “Texas stands to get a pretty good amount of money” during a five-year timeline that begins this year. While the payments are already trickling in, the highest payouts will occur in the last two years, he said. In the meantime, proposals are being vetted by regulatory agencies, Jones said.

“It’s a great opportunity for Cameron County,” he said.

How much of the money is allotted to county proposals, however, depends largely on what Texas Parks & Wildlife, working with the General Land Office, decides are the state’s top priorities, Jones said. The Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council, consisting of one trustee from each Gulf state, also has its say, he said.

“They have to agree on the whole 100 percent,” Jones said. “Then BP has to agree they’re getting enough points. If everybody’s not in agreement, then nothing goes anywhere. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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