Conservationists along the U.S. Gulf Coast are celebrating this weekend, hailing lawmakers' bipartisan support for the Gulf RESTORE Act as a "ray of hope" for the embattled region. The Senate voted 76-22 Thursday in favor of the measure, which is part of a broader transportation bill that the Senate will consider on Tuesday.

The RESTORE amendment, which aims to help Gulf Coast states recover from the 2010 BP oil spill, would allocate some fines collected from the British oil company to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, as well as the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. It was originally introduced in 2011 by nine of the 10 Gulf Coast senators — including Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla. — and drew support from a coalition of environmental groups.

"The Senate's overwhelming vote in favor of the RESTORE Act reflects the broad nationwide support for revitalizing the Gulf Coast region by ensuring the bulk of the money collected in spill fines is spent in the area that suffered so much harm," said a joint statement issued by the Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy and Oxfam America. "Faith leaders, conservationists and sportsmen, and strong majorities of voters from all sides of the political spectrum in Gulf states and across the nation agree that it just makes sense for the fines from the Gulf spill to come back to help repair the damage that has been done to the economy and the environment."

Thursday's Senate vote follows the House's recent approval of a similar amendment introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., both of which are based on the idea that oil-spill fines should belong to communities affected by the disaster. "The next step is for the House and Senate to resolve the differences between these two amendments in conference and enact RESTORE into law to bring this victory home for the Gulf region," the environmental groups' statement concluded.

The RESTORE Act has enjoyed bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, but it's not without critics. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., originally supported the measure, for example, but he joined 21 other Republicans Thursday in voting against it. Rubio opposes part of the deal that raises funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports — an item that was added to attract support from some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who has long contended the LWCF is underfunded.

Despite such quibbles, though, the Senate's decisive approval of the RESTORE Act is "a moment for hope and healing," according to a statement from Audubon president and CEO David Yarnold. "It's the most important conservation victory in a decade. And it's only fair that most of the money will come from BP's penalties. In this country, if you break it, you buy it and BP owes this to the Gulf Coast. And the new dollars for buying precious lands will help us live up to our responsibility to take care of America's national heritage for generations to come."

Here are a few of the major provisions in the amendment:

  • Eighty percent of Clean Water Act civil penalties from the oil spill would be directed to restoration of the Gulf Coast environment and local economies. According to the Audubon Society, this could total as much as $20 billion.
  • Resources would be distributed equitably among affected Gulf Coast states, allowing them to launch immediate recovery efforts.
  • Oversight would ensure that all spill-related funds are spent responsibly and only for their intended purposes.
  • A newly established Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council would develop and fund a comprehensive plan for the region's ecological recovery.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund would receive $1.4 billion over the next two years to help it purchase sensitive lands across the U.S.

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

U.S. Senate passes Gulf RESTORE Act
The amendment, part of a pending transportation bill, marks the Gulf Coast's 'most important conservation victory in a decade,' advocates say.