The House approved oil spill legislation Thursday, after making it harder to get full damages from companies responsible for the spill.
The action reversed Wednesday's vote to lower the level of proof required to get maximum damages and was a victory for oil companies.
But the chamber added other strengthening provisions to the bill, including a requirement that all new tankers be built with more protective double hulls. Existing tankers would have to be fitted with double hulls within 15 years or else retired from service.
The measure cleared the House on a 375 5 vote, sending it into conference with the Senate. Amendments to the House package make it similar to the version approved by the Senate last summer on a 99 0 vote, which should speed compromise on a final version.
Both bills would set up a national oil spill contingency program, create a national fund to pay for damages not covered by spillers, and strengthen a host of regulations on transportation of oil.
Angered by the March oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the House voted Wednesday by a slim six vote margin to make spillers fully liable for damages caused by simple negligence the same standard applied to motorists involved in accidents.
After that vote, the oil and shipping industry mounted an allout effort to bring the issue back Thursday for a second vote. That vote was cast late in the day, after many members had boarded airplanes home for the long Veterans Day weekend.
The 197 185 vote undid Wednesday's more stringent standard.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, RAlaska, who had opposed the standard that passed Wednesday, worked the doors Thursday urging House Republicans to vote for reversal.
The consequence of the vote is that spillers would be held fully liable for spills resulting only from gross negligence or willful misconduct, which critics said is much tougher to prove in court. Without such a finding, they would be responsible for no more than $150 million, with the rest of the damages paid out of a national fund capitalized by the public through a tax on domestic and imported oil.
The reversal also means that 44 tankers that carry North Slope crude oil out of Alaska's Prince William Sound will get a break. Under the TransAlaska Pipeline Act, which will be repealed by the national spill legislation, simple negligence was the standard.
A press release from Young's office on Thursday quoted him as saying he opposed the simple negligence standard because he thought it would have brought a veto by President Bush.
"It was simply an attempt to embarrass the president by forcing him to veto our bill because of this unnecessary amendment," Young said. "This amendment did nothing for the victims of oil spills. It was an amendment to punish domestic oil producers."
Thursday's liability action disappointed environmentalists and Alaska fishermen.
"This is appalling," said C. Demming Cowles, representative of United Fishermen of Alaska. "The House has just rewarded Exxon for the Prince William Sound spill."
"They had built a nice house on a strong foundation and then Hurricane Hugo blew through," said Mike Matz of the Sierra Club, referring to the oil industry's lobbying blitz.
Critics of the lower standard of negligence had maintained Wednesday that the consequence would have been oil companies selling off their shipping subsidiaries and moving oil on contract to small fleets with few assets. They also argued that oil prices would increase and that spot shortages of oil products might occur.
Despite the setback, authors of the House measure said it is the strongest spill legislation the chamber ever has passed.
"This is a victory for anyone who lives along the coast," said Rep. Gerry Studds, DMass.
Rep. George Miller, DCalif., said the big victory was when the House on Wednesday voted to allow states to have tougher liability standards than federal law. Alaska and the other West Coast states have laws holding spillers fully liable for damages.
Another clear indication that the House had changed its attitude about the oil industry after the Alaska spill came Thursday, when it approved on a voice vote requirements that oil tankers be equipped with double bottoms, which add about 5 percent to vessel construction costs.
A Coast Guard report in April had concluded that the March 24 Alaska spill could have been cut in half had the Exxon Valdez tanker been built with the more protective bottom.
Several House members, including Young, argued that there may be better alternatives to double bottoms, which they said create their own safety problems.
They presed an amendment that would have required new tankers to be equipped with double bottoms unless the Coast Guard decided otherwise after a year long study.
But Rep. Dean Gallo, RN.J., said the issue "has been studied to death" for 15 years since enactment of the Alaska pipeline act, when the industry and the Nixon administration promised that all tankers would be equipped with the double bottoms.
That promise was broken later when the Coast Guard said it couldn't get international agreement on double bottoms. Exxon Corp. was among companies that had lobbied the international oil industry against the idea.
Rep. Jim McDermott, DWash., said he had just returned from Southern California, where the Exxon Valdez is being repaired.
"They are replacing 75 percent of the Exxon Valdez hull just as it was the day it ran aground on Bligh Reef," he said. "This amendment gives us the chance to do what we should have done 15 years ago."
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