By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Alabama’s plans for spending the money coming from the BP oil spill have taken a sudden turn.
BP said on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the US Justice Department to pay $4.5 billion in fines and other penalties and to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges related to the rig explosion two years ago that killed 11 people and caused a giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Justice Department also announced that the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) would administer the use of the funds in the states.
Under the terms of the BP settlement agreement, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) expects to receive $2.394 billion over five years from BP, as part of its resolution of federal criminal charges stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
After finding out about the agreement, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said that the state would have no control over the way in which the money is spent.
In a written statement the NFWF said, “will manage the funds in strict compliance with the terms of the final court-approved settlement. NFWF expects to direct the funds largely to projects, as described by Attorney General Eric Holder, for “environmental restoration, preservation, and conservation efforts throughout [the Gulf] region – including barrier-island creation and river diversion projects in Louisiana.”
Back in the summer, Governor Bentley had said he wanted to use some of the BP fines to build a conference center in Baldwin County. It seems unlikely that such building projects would be a part of any “environmental restoration, preservation, and conservation” efforts as stated by Attorney General Holder.
The NFWF said, “We will work collaboratively with government and private sector stakeholders to ensure these funds are spent effectively and transparently to achieve the best possible outcomes for the Gulf ecosystem, consistent with the terms of the settlement,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “To achieve this, we will rely heavily on our established, science-based strategy for identifying and selecting appropriate projects to receive funding, all aimed at ensuring a healthy future for our country’s richest marine ecosystem.”
On Friday, Bentley was reported to have said that he had never heard of the NFWF prior to last week and stated, “Why the government chose them, I have no idea,” Bentley said. “I don’t even know who they are.”
On April 20, 2010, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig triggered the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The spill released an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico since June 2010. NFWF says they, “have invested more than $18 million in projects throughout the Gulf region to bolster populations and provide alternative habitats outside the spill zone.”
In a presentation entitled “Toward a Healthy Gulf of Mexico,” the foundation has written a blue print of what they believe are the key elements of the Gulf Coast recovery. The paper states, “NFWF will promote the recovery of key species and the Gulf ecosystem by investing in projects that focus on habitat restoration, sustainable fisheries management and increased conservation capacity. These efforts will will improve the the conservation status of key species in the face of future impacts from the oil spill, and increase species’ resilience to the effects of climate change.”
The entire document may be read at: http://www.nfwf.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=NFWF_s_Gulf_Strategy&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=23797
The foundation’s plan would seem to be environmental and habitat centric, “Our experience on the ground…, has convinced us that large-scale conservation actions must be continued and expanded to help nearly 200 species of Gulf wildlife recover. Investments are needed now to protect and restore key coastal habitats (beaches, dunes, coastal marshes, freshwater wetlands, barrier islands and oyster reefs); strengthen the capacity of fisheries managers; and support the implementation of sustainable management plans. Our science-based strategy focuses on these objectives, with the goal of ensuring a healthy Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.”
The non-profit organization was chartered by Congress in 1984, they say that they are, “the nation’s largest conservation funders.” The group “supports conservation efforts in all 50 states, U.S. territories and abroad.” Since 2010, it has invested nearly $23 million in the Gulf region, working with a wide network of conservation groups to address the needs of species affected by the oil spill.
Alabama lawmakers have been eager to spend BP money since the oil was spotted flowing into the Gulf. Surely, they will get the opportunity unless the Obama administration has more cleaver ways to keep the money out of state hands. To be sure, this is not the end of the BP payout. The company still faces civil fines based on the number of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf under the Clean Water Act, which alone could be over $21 billion.
BP also faces fines based on the damage to natural resources—like the birds and turtles killed and the impact on fisheries. The company also faces separate lawsuits from cleanup workers and local residents impacted by the spill, as well as suits from several of its investors.