The House showed its anger over the Alaska oil spill Wednesday by approving amendments significantly strengthening a spill prevention and liability bill.
The legislation would set minimum liability standards on the oil and shipping industry for spills. In addition, the chamber authorized states to maintain even tougher standards, reversing a 13 year policy that has held up congressional approval of a spill bill.
It also narrowly approved a provision that eight months ago would have been unthinkable in the House lifting all liability limits for accidents caused by simple negligence.
Wednesday's action was a clear victory for national environmental groups that had made passage of a tough oil spill bill a top priority after the March 24 grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker, which spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound.
"It's clear the Exxon Valdez was such an insult to the national environment that all the lobbying by the oil industry and the special interests couldn't overcome it," said Rep. George Miller, DCalif.
"That event is driving the concerns of the Congress," Miller said.
The American Petroleum Industry, which had lobbied hard against the strengthening amendments, said it was ""dismayed and distressed."
"If the House plan is enacted into law, many responsible transporters of oil will likely be driven out of the business and replaced by less financially responsible and capable shippers," the API said in a prepared statement.
During the floor debate, Rep. Don Young, RAlaska, accused the chamber of trying to "punish" the entire industry for the Alaska spill. He said making companies fully liable for spills caused by simple negligence will invite a veto of the measure by President Bush.
More amendments to further strengthen the measure will be voted on today, when the House expects to pass a final bill. Chief among the remaining issues is whether all tankers should be built or refitted with double bottoms that would make them less likely to leak in an accident.
For spills not caused by negligent acts, the legislation would impose liability limits of $1,200 per gross ton of tanker weight. For a vessel the size of the Exxon Valdez, the liability cap would be about $115 million.
Any other costs for oil cleanup and compensation of victims would be paid out of a national fund. Separate legislation is expected to peg that national fund at $1 billion and set up a 5 cent per barrel tax on domestic and imported oil to fund it.
The Coast Guard would be responsible for directing spill cleanups. But the cleanup must be consistent with state laws, and any state unhappy with the conditions of its beaches after the Coast Guard leaves could continue cleanup operations and bill the national fund.
This is the seventh time that the House has taken up an oilspill bill in the last 15 years. But it was the first time that the chamber voted to allow states to have tougher laws.
Nineteen states, including Alaska, have state laws with unlimited liability for spillers. As originally presented, the House bill would have supplanted those laws.
Rep. Gerry Studds, DMass., said the Alaska spill was reason for the House to change course.
"Why now after the Prince William Sound spill should we be telling the public that the federal government knows best, that states can do nothing to protect their own beaches and their own environment?" said Studds, author of the amendment protecting states' rights.
Others argued, however, that without some restrictions on state laws, a comprehensive national oil spill program would be subverted, resulting in a patchwork quilt of spill laws that hamper the oil transportation industry.
"Many operators may decide it is just not worth the risks," warned Rep. Norm Lent, RN.Y. "Home heating oil may simply disappear in some places. Energy costs will skyrocket. Many responsible shippers will be driven out of business."
But Studds' amendment, cosponsored by Miller, was approved 279 143 after a series of unsuccessful attempts to weaken or gut it.
The only amendment on which the vote was close was Miller's calling for lifting all liability limits for spills resulting from simple negligence. The bill had set a grossnegligence standard, which Miller said is difficult to prove in court.
Supporters said simple negligence is the liability standard for motorists involved in accidents and the same standard should be applied to the oil industry.
Miller noted that simple negligence is now the standard for Alaska oil under the TransAlaska Pipeline Act.
"Why after the Exxon Valdez should the industry be rewarded for acting unreasonably?" Miller asked. "Congress should require greater care, not less."
John P. Hammerschmidt, DArk., warned, however, that enactment of Miller's amendment would cause "total upheaval in the shipping industry."
"We are, in effect, letting the oil industry off the hook," he said. "Many companies will simply divest themselves of their shipping businesses."
Miller's amendment was approved 213207.
Afterward, Miller said it may be difficult to maintain the simplenegligence standard when the House bill goes into conference with the Senate.
But in general, Wednesday's votes moved the House and the Senate closer than they ever have been before. Since 1976 the Senate has refused to go along with a Housepassed oilspill bill because it would preempt tougher state laws.
story 163 of 380
story 16 of 72