Despite an attempt to redirect oil revenues from the Gulf Coast, federal legislators are confident they’ll be able to secure the tens of millions of dollars promised to local communities to help them mitigate the environmental risks of offshore drilling.
Those revenues are generated from federal leases to oil and gas companies, and as outlined in the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (GOMESA), they are shared by the Gulf states — excluding Florida — and their coastal counties and parishes.
However, there has been some concern about whether the arrangement would continue under President Donald Trump, whose first proposed budget made a legislative priority of redirecting those monies to the federal general fund.
While Congress has yet to pass an omnibus bill funding the government through the end of the fiscal year, an amendment sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne secured GOMESA funding in the appropriations bill passed by the House in September.
With a coalition of Gulf Coast representatives, including Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, Byrne believes there’s congressional support for keeping GOMESA dollars in communities shouldering the risk of offshore drilling — the same communities he said were directly impacted by BP’s “horrendous” oil spill in 2010.“It’s something we need to monitor, but I don’t think there’s really anything to be worried about immediately. There have been similar efforts to do this in years past,” Byrne said. “We won this fight every year during the Obama administration, and I feel confident that — if we have to have a fight — we’ll win every year during the Trump administration, too.”
For coastal municipalities, GOMESA revenues have become more of a focus recently because they’re projected to increase significantly next year now that the number of active federal leases in the Gulf of Mexico has ballooned in the second phase of the program.
If revenues hit the current cap of $375 million, that would mean yearly disbursements of $45 million to the state and an additional $6.1 million and $5.2 million for Mobile and Baldwin counties, respectively. However, revenues from 2017, scheduled to be dispersed in April, are projected to be half those amounts.
Still, if the program remains unchanged, it will run through 2055 — generating a potential $1.6 billion for Alabama and another $415 million that would be split between its coastal counties.
Notably, there is only a handful of approved uses for those dollars — all of which focus on coastal protection and planning, mitigating damage to natural resources or offsetting the effects of offshore oil activity in the Gulf.
Recently, Mobile County officials have been evaluating their priorities in anticipation of that increased funding in 2018. Following a year of record-breaking rainfall, Environmental Services Director Bill Melton said stormwater management is at the top of a lot of people’s lists.
“Along with all of that water came the concern of how to manage it, both in quantity and also with respect to water quality,” Melton said. “A lot of the county drains to the city [of Mobile], so most of the water quality issues the county deals with ultimately help the city.”
Mobile County Commission President Merceria Ludgood put the same emphasis on stormwater management when discussing the issue in September, and similar concerns have been expressed by city leaders in Mobile and other smaller communities throughout the county.
FOR EXAMPLES OF MOBILE COUNTY’S PREVIOUS USE OF GOMESA FUNDING, CLICK HERE.
While there is not yet a list of specific projects, Melton said the county plans to use GOMESA to tackle things such as shoreline restoration and stabilization, habitat management, sea level rise, flood mapping and even enhancing or increasing public access to the waterfront.
“Public access on this side of the bay is pretty weak,” Melton said. “It’s difficult to find a good area, and believe me, we have tried. But finding a property in a good location that will accommodate boats and parking but that’s also in deep-enough water has been difficult.”
He said the county has considered improving existing areas offering public access to the water such as Bayfront Park on Dauphin Island Parkway, which recently received a $1 million grant to evaluate the feasibility of adding “a sandy beach along the shoreline.”
One unique aspect of GOMESA, though, is that it does not require the kind of oversight seen in other funding mechanisms that require federal or state approval, such as the RESTORE Act. As Melton told the commission recently, “What the county plans to do is what the county will do.”
The same is true for Alabama’s GOMESA funding, which is 80 percent to the county’s 20 percent and administered solely through the governor’s office. While there are relatively specific uses officials must adhere to, Melton said the program also has “a lot of latitude.”
That has led to varying opinions on what projects fall in line with the original intent of GOMESA, especially when it comes to roads and infrastructure.
Some feel its “hurricane protection” would greenlight using GOMESA funds to construct “hurricane evacuation routes,” and that has led to some discussion of whether the new $1 billion Interstate 10 bridge might make a good hurricane evacuation route.
Back in 2015, Byrne floated the idea of putting some of Alabama’s share of the royalties toward the project, telling the Mobile Chamber of Commerce at the time that he didn’t know of a bigger priority than “to get this bridge built.”
However, tapping those funds for the I-10 bridge project is a decision that would be left entirely up to the state, which has been subject to recent legal challenges over its use of environmental funding for economic development and infrastructure projects.
While any decision about the county’s share will be up to the County Commission, Melton said he doesn’t think those types of expenditures are appropriate for GOMESA, adding “it’s not too difficult to look at the federal rules and see where hurricane protection is written and in what context.”
“The intent of the money kind of pops out when you look at the coastline and see all the oil rigs sitting out there. There is a risk to the coast because of this industry, and [GOMESA] is intended to help offset that risk,” Melton said. “Our job, as a staff, is to be sure of what we recommend to the commission, so we’re not going to focus on questionable stuff. We’ll let somebody else do that.”