The U.S. House on Wednesday voted to insist that both new and existing tank vessels be equipped with double bottoms.
The 376 37 vote came on an instruction to House members of a conference committee that will meet with Senate conferees to reconcile differences between their two versions of oil spill liability and compensation legislation.
There never was a formal double bottom vote in the House. The instruction is intended to keep House conferees from caving in to the Senate position.
But it leaves them a lot of maneuvering room. Even with it, conferees can negotiate what kind and size of vessels must have double bottoms, when the requirement would go into effect, and whether all tankers visiting U.S. ports would be covered, or only U.S. ships.
Double bottoms looks like the most controversial question facing the conferees.
A double bottom is just what it sounds like: two steel skins under an oil tanker, with empty space in between. A Coast Guard study after the Exxon Valdez accident concluded that the 11milliongallon spill could have been reduced by as much as 60 percent had the vessel been built with the double bottom.
The House bill was amended during floor consideration in the fall to require new tankers and barges to be built with the double bottoms, and older vessels to be fitted with them.
A similar provision was defeated in the Senate on a 52 48 vote. Both Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski voted against it. What passed was a direction to the Coast Guard to write doublebottom requirements within a year, unless it can find a better way to protect tankers from spilling oil during grounding or collision.
The amount of maneuvering room left to the conferees accounted for the instruction's overwhelming support in the House. It was even backed by members of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, which voted down a double bottom requirement when it wrote its oil spill bill last summer.
Alaska Rep. Don Young, a senior Republican on the Merchant Marine panel, voted for the instruction. Young has long contended that double bottoms may not be the best way of protecting tankers, saying that more modern technology such as rubber bladders may give greater protection.
The Alaska Oil Spill Commission, in a report on the Exxon Valdez accident, strongly urged that tankers be fitted with double bottoms. Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper has declared it a top priority in the federal oilspill bill.
Cowper's special counsel in Washington, John Katz, said the instruction the House approved for its conferees Wednesday gives them plenty of room to negotiate a compromise that the state government would not support.
"The House instruction is not everything we would have hoped for," Katz said. "It appears to leave conferees with a fair amount of flexibility."
Young will be among House conferees negotiating the final oilspill bill. Among the Senate conferees is U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, RAlaska, who led the fight against a doublebottom requirement in the Senate during the summer.
House leaders hope that a compromise bill can be sent to the White House before March 24, the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Valdez dumped nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
The Senate and House bills agree on most things: creating a national fund to cover the costs of cleaning up spills, to be tapped after a spiller reached its own liability limits; requiring spillers to pay the full cost of spills caused by negligence; imposing new requirements on transportation of North Slope crude oil through Prince William Sound; and, prohibiting licensing of crew members with alcoholrelated problems. The House bill also would create a presidential commission to audit the transAlaska pipeline.
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