Gulf Coast Counties Eligible to Apply
By Juan Moya, Ph.D., and Amanda Fuller
While the agreement is still subject to final approval, the Justice Department has reached a record $18.7 billion settlement with BP PLC, Transocean Ltd., and other companies responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The 18 Texas Gulf Coast counties should be gearing up to apply for no less than $511 million in environmental restoration funding that Texas will receive under the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist, and Revised Economies (RESTORE) Act. This legislation mandates that 80 percent of the civil and administrative penalties under the Clean Water Act go to the gulf for restoration and recovery activities along with research.
Potential applicants, such as county officials, should acquaint themselves with the process starting with visits to several key web pages, the first of which is on the website of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI). The ELI is an internationally recognized independent research and education organization that works to educate gulf residents and communities and include them in the decision-making process concerning gulf restoration.
This ELI web page provides an overview of how the settlement money will get to applicants. It is the place to compare the funding mechanisms and study the various ways in which the settlement will be divided over a 15-year payout period. For example, it shows that the U.S. Treasury Department directly administers 35 percent of RESTORE Act funding, while the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (GCERC) administers two pots of money with each amounting to 30 percent. It’s important for Texas counties to be aware of these varying funding pots because they submit applications to different groups, including the GCERC and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
Another resource for crucial background information is the TCEQ website. This website provides an overview of how settlement funding will be allocated between the states involved and the various activities established by the law, and provides a rundown on projects the State of Texas already has submitted for funding. The page presents a timeline for what will happen as Texas formulates its multi-year restoration plan and presents it for public comment before finalizing it, most likely later this year.
Further resources can be found on the GCERC’s site. The council is tasked with helping to restore the ecosystem and economy of the Gulf Coast region by developing and overseeing the implementation of the RESTORE Act. The council is chaired by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and includes the governors of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas; the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Army, Homeland Security and the Interior, and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry designated Toby Baker, TCEQ commissioner, as the Texas representative on the council. The council established an initial comprehensive plan in 2013 that covers all states involved; the council reviews restoration proposals from all states and makes recommendations on which projects to fund. This web page explains in greater detail what the council is looking for in restoration proposals from counties and other agencies or organizations.
The TCEQ has provided a summary of the types of eligible projects direct from the RESTORE Act’s text in this online policy guidance document.
As presented on the TCEQ website, eligible projects include everything from water quality improvement and restoring threatened habitats to promoting tourism or sea food consumption to stimulating job growth. Projects that are regionally focused and integrate more than one of the permitted activities are likely to be stronger contenders for what is a highly competitive process.
As counties consider what projects to propose, they should keep several issues in mind. The first is the question of partnerships. With the grant review and award process so competitive, counties are likely to be more successful if they look for partners and advocates when evaluating what projects to champion. This is why it is so critical to begin initiating conversations with a wide range of regional and local stakeholders. From these discussions can emerge good ideas for eligible projects, as well as the right expertise to manage the applications.
There are many types of potential partnerships to consider including other counties, state agencies, and environmentally focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Additional partners could include local businesses and chambers of commerce along with groups that advocate for recreational sports like hunting and fishing. Ducks Unlimited and the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, for example, have already received funding for projects from money that was already available.
Another factor will be commitment to project maintenance. Successful funding applications will include ways to maintain a project once it is up and running. Given the 15-year timeframe for RESTORE Act payouts, applications may include monitoring as part of the grant by factoring the cost of maintenance. There’s not much point to all the effort involved in starting a restoration project only for it to fade away because there’s no follow-up money to keep it operating.
A third important factor is whether a proposed project follows a federally approved environmental plan; it’s simply not likely to be competitive if it does not. The Texas General Land Office’s Coastal Zone Management (CMP) Program Plan is a good template of a federally approved environmental plan that counties can study before submitting proposals for RESTORE Act funding. Other local plans may exist for some counties connected to the projects of interest. In addition, be aware of the types of proposals that other entities and counties are submitting, and try not to compete for comparable projects in the same area. Again, this is where partnerships will prove invaluable at minimizing duplicate (and wasted) applications.
Finally, counties must be persistent and pro-active. There remains many unknowns about the specifics of obtaining funding under the Restore Act, and it may be that one project will be rejected first while a later proposal is funded. Do not give up. There is an expanded window for funding rounds, and that gives counties the opportunity to review projects that do receive funding approval and adjust their proposals accordingly.
– Dr. Juan Moya is a senior geoscientist with Freese and Nichols, Inc., and has more than 27 years of experience working with coastal environmental projects. He worked 11 years for the Texas General Land Office in developing coastal projects through grants supporting coastal communities. He may be contacted at Juan.Moya@freese.com. Amanda Fuller is an attorney with international experience in water policy. She is the deputy director of the Gulf of Mexico Restoration Program for the National Wildlife Federation and can be reached at FullerA@nwf.org.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.