NAPLES — As BP and the Justice Department haggle over the size of the fine the oil giant will pay for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the wheels already are turning in Southwest Florida to get a piece of it.
In July, President Obama signed the so-called RESTORE Act, laying the groundwork for how to divvy up what experts say could be as much as $20 billion in fines against BP under the Clean Water Act.
The influx of money for ecosystem and economic restoration projects could be a game changer for local communities around the Gulf of Mexico hit hard by ruined fisheries and oiled beaches as well as for environmental causes that have been fighting for years for money.
But much remains to be ironed out, from whether there will be a settlement at all to who's in charge of deciding which projects get a share of any settlement money.
"Virtually everything is up in the air right now," said Collier County Audubon Society environmental policy advocate Pete Quasius, who is keeping tabs on the details.
Just this week, word spread that negotiations with BP have taken a turn that would undermine the RESTORE Act's goal of putting 80 percent of the settlement money in the hands of states and local governments to decide how to spend.
Instead, if fines are levied under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment program, lawmakers said local communities would be shortchanged by putting the federal government in control of more of the money. BP would get a tax break by paying assessment program fines instead of Clean Water Act fines.
The arrangement would jeopardize millions of dollars the RESTORE Act would send directly to Collier and Lee counties, according to the Florida Association of Counties.
Depending on the size of the settlement, the group calculated that Collier stands to get anywhere from $4.9 million to $19.6 million; Lee County could get between $6.1 million and $24.6 million.
Local government officials have talked about using BP oil spill money for everything from building artificial reefs to renourishing beaches, but Collier County hasn't put together a formal wish list.
"It doesn't look like there's any urgency to it," said Jack Wert, Collier County tourism director.
A consensus is developing among many environmental groups that the BP money could provide the dollars they've been looking for to speed the construction of a massive reservoir along the Caloosahathcee River in Hendry County.
The $435 million reservoir, a component of Everglades restoration plans for years, would hold water to even out flows down the river and reduce the damaging effects of releases from Lake Okeechobee.
Land has been bought for the project, test cells constructed and all the federal permits are in place; it's just waiting for money to get the bulldozers moving.
The money could come from two other pots the RESTORE Act set up: one that would go to states to spend and one that would be administered by a federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.
The state money would be divided equally among Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Unlike the other four states, Florida could put spending decisions in the hands of a consortium of 23 Gulf Coast counties.
The Florida Association of Counties has recruited 13 counties to the consortium so far, but neither Collier nor Lee counties has signed on yet.
Collier commissioners voted 4-1 last month to have County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow work with the group to draw up an agreement for Collier to enter the consortium.
Commissioner Georgia Hiller voted no, saying she worried that Collier might be giving up a share of potential oil spill money and that there are no assurances that Gov. Rick Scott would support the consortium and not challenge its authority.
Hiller and Commissioner Tom Henning also voiced concern that the consortium would set up a huge long-term bureaucracy. Henning called for the agreement to be "lean and mean."
Under the RESTORE Act, a third pot of money would be governed by the federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is charged with putting in place a coordinated Gulfwide recovery and restoration plan. Projects would compete for a share of the money.
The boost that the BP oil spill money would give to Southwest Florida environmental restoration "could be significant," said Lisa Beever, director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, which is helping to compile a regional wish list of potential projects for oil spill money.
"We want to make it real easy (for the federal council) to invest here and make sure we're not forgotten," Beever said.