WASHINGTON — Federal legislation that would give coastal states like Louisiana a share of 80 percent of any fine money from the BP oil leak cleared an important hurdle Wednesday when a U.S. Senate committee approved the bill.
The measure will now go before the full Senate after its endorsement by the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee.
Clean Water Act fines to BP could exceed $20 billion.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a member of the committee, co-sponsored the legislation and lobbied committee members for support.
“This is where the damage happened,” Vitter said. “This is where the restoration has to happen.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also a co-sponsor of the measure, called the vote a “tremendous victory for the Gulf Coast.”
That the bill received bipartisan support on the committee indicates that the measure should get support on the Senate floor, she said.
“I’m confident that we can get it to the floor sometime in the near future and then ultimately start working with the House to get it to the president’s desk,”
The Obama administration has already stated that it would support such a measure.
Under the Clean Water Act, BP faces fines ranging from $1,000 to $4,300 a barrel for the oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico last year, the biggest leak in the nation’s history. About 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the ocean over 87 days.
The committee vote did not come without challenge. The veteran Republican on the committee, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he does not support sending fine money to the states. He voted against the bill’s committee passage.
Committee member and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, voted in favor of the legislation but raised concern about the move, which he noted would set a precedent.
“Before I support this bill on the full Senate floor I’m going to be asking the questions about how much will this cost?” Udall said. “My understanding is that we don’t have a clue what this is going to cost, we only know the estimated cost.”
“It raised a precedent to me how we’re going to deal with fines in future spills, environmental accidents and these kind of fines and should all states be entitled to federal fines for environmental accidents that occur in their border,” Udall said.
Funding would be shared by states affected by the disaster including Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Money would also be directed to a state and federal task force, that would include input from environmental groups.
The Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group in New Orleans, welcomed the committee vote Wednesday but said the legislation faces a long road before reaching fruition.
“While many are on record supporting the concept of BP’s fines being used for the Gulf ecosystem, passage is far from assured,” said Aaron Viles, deputy director of the group.
Viles urged constituents across the nation to contact their congressmen to push for approval of the bill.
“If you drive a car, drink a cup of coffee, shoot at a mallard, eat a shrimp or listen to jazz music, you’re a stakeholder in the recovery of the Gulf,” Viles said.
Committee member U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the legislation must not only be adopted, but should be passed soon.
“Time is not our friend,” Sessions said.