The Deepwater Horizon oil spill seems like a lifetime ago. Most of us were not so closely tied to the Gulf that it left scars on our way of life or financial well-being.
Yes, lives were changed by the disaster, but for 90-plus percent of us the most lingering stress caused by the spill has been in waiting for all that sweet, sweet BP money to roll in.
The oil giant agreed to pay billions in fines and reparations to not only make us whole, but to make us even better than we were before that tragic day when the world’s most infamous oil rig exploded, killing 11 and dumping 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That was just about eight years ago. Since then some money has rolled in, but the biggest chunks are just now making it into the bank, which means crucial decisions on how that money will be spent must move from the wish list to reality.
Once the monstrous settlement figures became public, it was only natural that political leaders across the five Gulf states would completely lose their minds. While no one would ever admit it, I’m certain more than a few political leaders look at that spill like Jed Clampett did that day he went out shootin’ at some food and up through the ground come a bubblin’ crude. Oil that is. Black gold. Texas tea. Free money, baby!
Suddenly every wild idea had a funding solution — BP money! Even as councils were put together to start trying to sort through the requests and figure out if and when the cash would get here, they were barraged by big ideas in need of dollars. We needed soccer complexes, new highways, sewer systems, spinner rims, sweaters for turtles and 3-carat diamond pinky rings.
But now there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The money is here and the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council has made public “bucket” lists one and three of what we might buy with this blood money. These projects run the gamut from hardcore infrastructure and economic development to total environmental protection. Now the council has to finalize what projects are worth pulling out of the buckets and making reality.
That’s right where the real arguing can begin, because it’s doubtful the majority of us are going to be completely happy with every item deemed worthy of this blood money. To say the system devised for the distribution of BP dollars is dense and confusing would be an understatement, along the lines of saying the rules for determining a catch in the NFL can sometimes seem arbitrary.
Knowing a few things going in is important when you look at the list of projects being considered. I’m sure a lot of people feel this was an environmental disaster and that, therefore, approved projects should primarily focus on protecting our coastal resources and helping us experience them in ways our children’s children will still be able to enjoy (as long as their robot overlords allow it).
Still, we all have to recognize the spill was also an economic event that hurt people financially and destroyed livelihoods, so projects that enhance tourism or help restore our seafood industry are part of the equation. And those types of projects fill these buckets as well. But a quick perusal will also reveal a number of projects — very expensive projects — one could argue have little to do with either the environment or mitigating the economic damages directly caused by the spill.
There are massive road projects in Baldwin County estimated to take more than 140 million BP bucks, including expansion of the Foley Beach Express all the way north to Interstate 65. A roll-on/roll-off facility at the Port of Mobile carries a $28 million price tag and would no doubt be helpful in any efforts to bring auto manufacturing to our neck of the woods, but some might give it the ol’ gimlet eye for being an improvement to the state-owned port facility that rightly should be paid for as part of the regular operation of the docks.
In each of those latter two cases, though, proponents can point to the spending outlines set up for this process and make reasonable arguments that they indeed fit neatly into their bucket. The only conclusion I’ve reached about these projects right now is we’re going to get a mixed bag, and the legislation that got the settlement in the first place pretty much ensured that.
Gov. Kay Ivey has appointed former Congressman Jo Bonner to chair the committee, and I do have faith he and the other nine members want to be proud of what they accomplish.
Will they be able to look back and say they did the right thing if they funded projects that severely reduced the millions of gallons of sewage flowing into our waterways each year, while also restoring the Three Mile Creek Watershed, improving access to Baldwin’s beaches and helping improve the local economy with a new port facility? I’d imagine they can all sleep at night with that kind of mix.
We’re not all going to agree on every project, but the money needs to be spent wisely on things that will have meaning for years. There is a tremendous amount of cash to spend, and even more has come and is coming from other parts of the settlement. At the end of the day my guess is that roads, port facilities and sewage treatment facilities won’t be looked at by the public in the same way as making improvements to Three Mile Creek or finding a way to get the USA Foundation to sell the city their old golf course at Brookley so it can be turned into an amazing bayside park.
I would encourage the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, as it makes final decisions, to err on the side of funding projects that would never find money otherwise. Roads, bridges, port improvements and even sewage treatment facilities are all part of regular government function, even if in Alabama that means they’re starved for money. Yes, I get that such projects were all baked into the final agreements with BP, but many of those will happen eventually regardless of whether they’re paid for with oil money.
Hopefully the council will look more toward those truly meaningful projects that would never see the light of day without this money that washed up on our beaches. Look more to securing a healthy, accessible environment for our future even if those spinner rims sure would look nice on the family jalopy.
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