ST. PETERSBURG — The long-term recovery of Florida and other states harmed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster may require setting up some new entity that can vet proposals and hand out money to carry out those projects, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told a town-hall hearing Tuesday night.
He also said it should give some states a chance "to begin to move the gulf coast as a whole away from a dependence on oil and gas and become a hub for alternative energy."
Pressed on which alternative — solar, wind power and so forth — he said, "I don't care. Whatever makes the most sense."
President Barack Obama appointed Mabus to head up a commission to write a long-range recovery plan for the gulf, so Mabus is traveling around the gulf looking for suggestions. He held two hearings in Alabama on Monday and the hearing at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg was his second in Florida on Tuesday, after a stop in Panama City. His next stops are in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, is being handed ideas about everything from economic diversification to mental health assistance.
"My job is to make sure that when this well gets killed, and the initial cleanup is done, and the oil is no longer on the beach, that that's not the end of the story," Mabus said.
But Mabus warned Tuesday night's crowd, which packed an auditorium that holds 275 people, that once he turns in his report — which he expects to do in a matter of weeks — he goes back to his regular Pentagon job.
"You will be the ones to come up with individual projects, and you will be the ones to execute them," he said.
Over the course of the town hall meeting, speaker after speaker brought up questions about the oil spill rather than offering suggestions for long-term fixes.
When faced with questions about the use of chemical dispersants, the presence of vast undersea plumes of dissolved oil and the apparent increase in methane near the site of the disabled rig, Mabus confessed, "I'm an English major." But he promised that projects approved for rebuilding the gulf will be based on science.
One speaker who brought up a concrete idea was environmental activist Darden Rice, who told Mabus the government should set up an advisory group made up of representatives from tourism, commercial and recreational fishing and coastal communities to vet projects. She also suggested the government demand BP set up a $5 billion escrow account to get such projects started until other sources kick in.
Since it began with an explosion on April 20, the Deepwater Horizon disaster has acted like a slow-moving hurricane, affecting life and livelihoods across five states. Now that BP has a cap on the gushing oil, the government's focus is shifting toward dealing with the disaster's long-range effects.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who was the first to take the microphone, urged Mabus to include in his report a call for keeping oil rigs off the coasts of Florida, a proposal that brought whoops and cheers from many in the crowd.
"One of the things this spill has taught us is that just not having rigs off the coast is not a guarantee you will not be harmed by a catastrophe like this," Mabus said. He acknowledged the damage done to Florida's tourism industry, even in parts of the state that haven't seen the first tar ball.
"This is a commitment for years," he said. "This is a commitment to make sure the gulf is made whole." Such a commitment is a rarity, he said, in an age when most politicians think "long-range plans" means "the next election."
One potential problem for any restoration program, though, is that "in many cases we don't know what we lost," said Russ Nelson of the Coastal Conservation Association, a fishing group. He recommended delving into studies about what the gulf was like prior to the spill — how many fish were there, where they were, and so forth — to better measure the disaster.
When someone asked him if the government would really produce a long-range recovery plan for the Gulf Coast, Mabus said, "If there's not, I'm wasting all this time doing this."