Long before the BP oil rig known as Deepwater Horizon blew up, in April 2010, killing eleven workers and spewing nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Larry McKinney had already earned his reputation as “Dr. Doom.” The straight-talking marine biologist leads the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi and has spent forty years tracking the decline of the Gulf in Texas. When I spoke with him recently, McKinney recalled the disastrous toll that the 1979 Ixtoc I oil well blowout took on the state’s barrier islands, and he fretted over how freshwater from our rivers barely reaches the sea these days, wreaking havoc on marshes, fish, and iconic species such as the whooping crane. “The Gulf is like a fighter,” he told me. “You can only take so many punches before you go down.”

So imagine my surprise at McKinney’s unbridled optimism in the wake of the BP disaster. After all, the spill was so massive—the largest accidental marine spill in history—that scientists are still struggling to gauge the impact. Tens of millions of gallons of oil tarred the coastline from Louisiana to Alabama and, along with nearly two million gallons of toxic dispersant, coated hundreds of square miles of seafloor. Texas escaped the worst of the spill, yet many of its bird and turtle species were severely affected. In this ugly aftermath, McKinney sees hope. Thanks to the Restore Act passed by Congress in June 2012, as well as fines levied against BP under the Clean Water Act and a surprise court settlement last November that forced BP to pay $4.5 billion in penalties, Texas will receive a substantial payout. And those funds will go toward extensive new efforts to reverse the longtime degradation of the state’s coast. “Deepwater Horizon was a tragedy,” said McKinney, “but now it offers an opportunity like nothing I’ve ever seen. This investment in our oceans will return a tremendous benefit—economically, environmentally, all of it.”

Louisiana and Alabama are already rebuilding oyster beds and restoring dunes, but no projects in Texas have been green-lit. Yet. When the BP money does come in, it will be up to the governor’s office, various state and federal agencies, and appointed advisory committees to decide how to spend it. Meanwhile, a quick search of the federal website Restore the Gulf turns up 222 proposals for Texas. These range from small projects favored by sportsmen, such as the reopening of Cedar Bayou, near Port Aransas (which would connect bays and enhance fishing), to larger ones, like consolidating hundreds of acres of conservation land at Galveston Island and Mustang Island. Environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation are also stressing the need to buy water rights and large-scale real estate to protect instream flows and safeguard wildlife habitat. 

The possibilities are almost too much for old Dr. Doom to contemplate. “It’s actually kind of scary,” McKinney mused. “If we are successful, we will have a model to show the rest of the country, maybe even the rest of the world.”