By Nikki Buskey
The U.S. Senate passed a transportation bill Wednesday that would send billions of dollars in fines from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast.
The bill now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives for action.
The Senate passed the transportation bill, which contains the Restore Act, in a 74-22 vote.
Both of Louisiana's senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, voted in favor of the bill and helped lead the push to pass it.
"My colleagues and I are so proud to have passed the Restore Act, which will not add to the deficit, but will rather apply fine money that will be levied very soon in the courts against BP, and it will redirect this money back to the Gulf Coast -- the states and communities that suffered the damage," Landrieu said in a news release.
It's now up to the U.S. House of Representatives to "follow through on promises to make the Gulf whole again," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
"Final passage would represent one of the great conservation achievements in recent memory, protecting and restoring land, water and wildlife along our coasts, in our oceans and our public lands across the country,"he said.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said he would urge members of the House to support the Senate's bill.
Under the Clean Water Act, BP can be fined from $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel leaked after the deadly explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. That could add up to fines of between $5 billion and $20 billion.
The first $2.7 billion will go into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is used for cleanup costs. Any additional money will go to the federal treasury unless Congress decides differently.
Under the Senate bill, 80 percent of those fines would go to the Gulf Coast states for environmental and economic restoration.
"This is a commitment to fix nature's infrastructure along with roads, rails and tunnels," said National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold. "It says we'll pay for what we broke because we owe it to our grandkids and their grandkids."
The Restore Act would:
Dedicate 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties charged to BP to the restoration of the Gulf Coast.
Provide resources and flexibility to Gulf Coast states to start economic and ecological recovery immediately.
Establish a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and a Comprehensive Plan for the Gulf Coast focused on ecosystem and coastal restoration.
Establish a long-term Science and Fisheries Endowment and Gulf Coast Centers for Excellence.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, applauded Landrieu and other members of the U.S. Senate for recognizing the importance of the Restore Act.
Scalise will be part of the Gulf Coast team that will shepherd the bill through its next vote in the U.S. House.
"Just last month, the House of Representatives went on record in passing my amendment to dedicate 80 percent of BP fines to the Gulf Coast, and I continue working with House Leaders to ensure that the Restore Act passes Congress and is signed into law by President Obama," Scalise said. "Today's Senate action is another major step toward final passage of the Restore Act, and we will continue working hard to ensure that Louisiana, and all the Gulf States, have the resources we need to fully recover from the Deepwater Horizon disaster."
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been unable to gather the votes necessary to pass a House version of the transportation bill, which includes measures to increase oil exploration that are opposed by Democrats.
Boehner could bring the Senate version of the bill before a House vote. Or he could call for a bill continuing to pay for highway for highway and transportation projects at their current level. If that happens, Gulf Coast congressmen would have to find another way to get the Restore Act amendment through the House.
If needed, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., will be on the conference committee to reconcile the Senate bill with the House bill.
"Passing this bill with the Restore Act included is also a big, big win in the fight to save our coast," Vitter said. "And as a leading Republican conferee tasked to hammer out the final version of this highway bill, I'll place keeping the Restore language in the bill as an absolute top priority."