Florida Nets More Than $3 Billion In BP Oil Spill Settlement

Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist from Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, surveying oiled sargassum seaweed in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
Credit Georgia Department of Natural Resources / via Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Florida will land about $3.25 billion as part of a multi-state federal settlement with BP over widespread damages caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The deal announced Thursday requires London-based BP to pay $18.5 billion in economic and natural resources damages to the five Gulf Coast states affected by the disaster, which pumped at least 3.9 million gallons of oil off the coastlines of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Sen. Don Gaetz, who as Senate president pushed for the creation of a consortium to oversee the bulk of the settlement funds, said the money will help boost economic development throughout the Panhandle, now largely reliant on tourism and the military industry.

"This could be game changer," said Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville. "Just as the Deepwater Horizon was the worst economic disaster to befall our area, this settlement could be the best economic opportunity in our times. This kind of money allows you to build out our current economy in northwest Florida, as well as being able to development entire economic sectors that don't exist today."

Florida stands to receive $2 billion for economic damages, the most of any Gulf Coast state, and $680 million for restoration projects. The deadly explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and ensuing massive spill affected the environment, tourism and the fishing industry along the Gulf of Mexico but its effects rippled throughout the state.

Louisiana, hardest-hit by the environmental impacts of the disaster, is slated to receive $5 billion for restoration projects, the most of any of the five states in the settlement.

Florida is also in line for $572 million as part of the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act, with that figure potentially growing to $1.25 billion.

Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., a non-profit corporation created by the Legislature in 2013, will manage 75 percent of the economic damages money. Triumph, set up to help the eight Panhandle counties most economically impacted by the spill, is expected to award the money over 30 years for recovery efforts. The legislature will distribute the remaining 25 percent.

“This agreement will help Florida implement key projects and invest in environmental priorities to keep our state beautiful," Gov. Rick Scott said in a release.

Under the agreement, Florida will receive an initial payment of $400 million next year, with subsequent disbursements of about $100 million annually through 2033.

The governor's office and other state environmental agencies deferred to the attorney general's office when asked how the state would use the money.

"We will be working closely with our partner agencies to determine the next steps moving forward," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Katie Purcell said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi announced the settlement during a press conference at the Port of Tampa Bay on Thursday.

Environmentalists, still reeling from how the Legislature divvied up voter-approved water and land conservation money for the new budget year, are hopeful that the BP cash will be used appropriately as it's slowly dispersed over the next two decades.

With $2 billion earmarked for economic recovery efforts, Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said that the remainder of the spending should be steered toward environmental projects.

"Although Florida wasn't impacted by that much oil, we have significant amount of environmental degradation associated with water quality problems and even lack of fresh water flow," Draper said. "This money could be spent anywhere from the Caloosahatchee River all the way to the Panhandle."

The agreement --- potentially the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history --- is "an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate and expand the response to the devastating harm caused by the spill, and to build lasting resilience into the essential ecosystems of the Gulf," a group of national and local environmental organizations said in a joint press release.

"While we await key details, one thing is clear: As soon as the settlement is final, it will be time to put that money to work," the statement from theEnvironmental Defense FundNational Wildlife FederationNational Audubon SocietyOcean ConservancyThe Nature ConservancyCoalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation said.

Business lobbying groups also hailed the settlement.

"Five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we still do not know the extent of the damage done to the Gulf, however this is a first step in making our industry whole," Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a press release.

BP, which has spent more than $20 billion responding to the spill and claims, saw its value drop by a third after the maritime disaster.

The agreement is "a path to closure for BP and the Gulf," BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said in a statement.

"It resolves the company's largest remaining legal exposures, provides clarity on costs and creates certainty of payment for all parties involved," Svanberg said. “In deciding to follow this path, (BP) has balanced the risks, timing and consequences associated with many years of litigation against its wish for the company to be able to set a clear course for the future.”

In April 2013, Bondi filed a lawsuit against BP Exploration & Production Inc., BP America Production Co., and Halliburton Energy Services, Inc., seeking $5.48 billion for lost revenue --- past and future --- from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The lawsuit sought actual and potential lost tax revenue caused by the spill. Bondi filed the lawsuit after the company ignored a settlement offer.

Thursday's announced settlement with BP doesn't end the state's lawsuits against rig owner TransOcean and contractor Haliburton Energy Services. The agreement also doesn't help those who opted out of a 2012 class action settlement to pursue individual property damage and medical claims.

The portion of the settlement dealing with the economic loss claims still requires final approval from all of the parties involved, and a consent decree dealing with natural resources damages and Clean Water Act claims will require court approval.

©2015 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. Posting or forwarding this material without permission is prohibited.