WASHINGTON — A bipartisan effort to secure at least 80 percent of fines from the BP Gulf oil spill for the five Gulf Coast states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas — advanced Wednesday as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the bill by voice vote.
Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., praised the lawmakers from both parties who had worked together to develop the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act of 2011. "It is an important commitment to the people of the Gulf," she said.
The bill now goes to the full Senate.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a member of the panel, said the lawmakers came together because the legislation would direct fines from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout to the hard-hit Gulf Coast. The fund could collect from $5 billion to $20 billion.
"That's where the damage happened," Vitter said. "That's where the restoration has to occur."
The legislation would establish a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund to provide Gulf Coast states with 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The U.S. Treasury Department would receive the remaining 20 percent of the fines assessed against BP and other parties found to be responsible for the April 2010 tragedy.
Under existing law, the Treasury would collect the entire amount.
Under the bill, the states would equally divide 35 percent of the monies directed to the Gulf states. Sixty percent of the funds would be directed to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, and 5 percent would go to a new Gulf science and fisheries program.
The federal Clean Water Act allows the Environmental Protection Agency to impose a $1,100 fine for every barrel of oil spilled, which can rise to $4,300 per barrel. According to a statement issued by Republican Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico mean that BP could face fines between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion.
"By directing BP penalty money back to the states that are dealing with the cleanup and restoration from this devastating spill, we help ensure that the Gulf Coast continues to thrive for decades to come," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
"This legislation was carefully crafted to give Gulf Coast states the resources and flexibility they need to confront the long-term consequences of the oil spill," Cochran said. "The Environment and Public Works Committee's endorsement should help propel the bill to the Senate floor for debate and passage."
Both Cochran and Wicker worked on the bill, introduced in July, and are original co-sponsors.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said the Gulf Coast delegation is nearing a consensus on legislation there.
"I will continue to work with members across the Gulf Coast to expeditiously introduce and pass a proposal that will provide the resources necessary to address the full economic and ecological restoration of coastal communities," Palazzo said.
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