As Texas decides how it will spend millions of dollars from a multi-state agreement with BP following the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) is proposing a fee on projects that restore damaged coastal areas.
Some of the non-profit environmental and wildlife groups involved in the projects are not happy.
Nine groups including Ducks Unlimited, the Galveston Bay Foundation, and the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter met last week with GLO staff members. The groups had expressed their opposition in a letter sent this past December to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
The letter likened the proposed fees to a tax that “gouges conservation and restoration activities.” The letter went on to say:
“Imposing fees on activities funded by the RESTORE Act and similar mechanisms related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would reduce the amount of money going into actual, on-the-ground conservation work, and hamper efforts at coastal resiliency, in violation of the spirit and intent of the RESTORE Act to restore the ecosystems and economies of the Gulf Coast states.”
$5,000 an Acre
The GLO wouldn’t provide StateImpact with details but spokesman Jim Suydan said in an emailed response that the “proposed fee has not been finalized or published. Land Office staffers are still listening to all the folks involved here and working to determine the best way to move forward.”
The GLO manages state-owned property including the Texas coastline. It leases “submerged” coastal property for things like oil & gas drilling, fishing cabins, and wildlife preserves. The leasing fees it collects go to finance public schools.
In the past, the GLO usually waived leasing fees when underwater land was used by non-profit groups for wetlands, oyster reef restoration and other ecological or wildlife projects according to group members.
“We’ve been doing leases and restoring the state’s land for a long time,” said Kirby Brown with Ducks Unlimited.
Kirby told StateImpact that there were times when lease fees were charged but he said they amounted to only about $20 an acre. By contrast, Brown said the GLO’s recent proposal that could affect BP-funded projects would raise those fees to $5,000 an acre (a large oyster reef could cover 50 acres).
But Brown said GLO staffers indicated they may scrap that figure and instead consider graduated payments topping out at $1,000 or less an acre.
Concerns over Future Federal Funding
The conservation groups have also expressed concern that onerous state fees could disqualify Texas from receiving funds overseen by federal agencies. At least one Gulf Coast state — Florida —said it also charges a fee for ecological projects on state coastal areas.
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection couldn’t provide details but the agency’s website shows it charges city government’s a flat rate of $300 a year for using state land for recreational purposes.
The U.S Department of Interior is involved in overseeing the dispersal of BP funds. The department said it didn’t have a comment on the Texas proposal. Likewise, another agency involved, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told StateImpact that regulations governing the BP funds “are not yet formulated”.
Texas lawmakers are interested in how the state uses the money. Last week in his list of hot topics the House should study this year, Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, included a suggestion to “monitor the use of funds” from the BP spill and “make recommendations on the appropriate use” of them.