NEW ORLEANS - It'shailed as landmark legislation, which could change the course of coastal restoration efforts in the state.
'We're talking billions of dollars here. This is a game-changer in Louisiana and across the Gulf coast,' said Bethany Kraft, Deputy Director of the Ocean Conservancy's Gulf Restoration Center.
The 'RESTORE Act' calls for 80 percent of oil spill-related penalties and fines to be directed to the five impacted Gulf states. Its passage in the Senate on Thursday, by a vote of 76-22, was heralded as a rare show of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill and a major victory in finding the money needed to restore Louisiana's coast.
'We know the injury occurred on the Gulf coast - it was our beaches, our marshes that were inundated with oil,' said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana.
The total amount of money collected in oil spill fines could range from $5 to $20 billion.
'Louisiana would get the plurality - not the lion's share - but way more than any other state because of our damages,' said Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana.
Louisiana could be ahead of the restoration game in other ways. Years of previous coastal restoration planning could help the state tap into potential funds quicker than other Gulf states.
'The fact that Louisiana has been working for years on a plan to restore the ecosystem here, puts them ahead of the game,' Kraft said. 'That money is not specifically linked to the damages that occurred as a result of the oil spill, so it can be used on a wide variety of restoration projects.'
Those projects could include oyster habitat restoration, the replanting of marsh grass and the potential for strategic river diversions, which would funnel silt-rich river water into the disappearing marsh and help rebuild that land.
'We've always had the will in Louisiana and along the Gulf coast to restore our ecosystem, we know how important it is,' Kraft said. 'This provides some critical, critical funding to actually move us down the road to do that.'
The effort to get the RESTORE Act passed is far from over, though. The amendment is attached to the Transportation bill in the Senate, with a vote for next week. It will be up to the House to either pass the Senate version of the bill, or the two chambers will have to hash out a new version.