The state Senate Saturday approved a hastily prepared package of bills to do what members said should have been done long ago: prepare for the next inevitable environmental disaster.
The set of six bills would create statewide contingency plans and emergency cleanup crews, increase fines for polluters, establish a commission to investigate the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and prohibit Exxon from writing off cleanup costs on its state tax bill.
"What we have here is a package to make sure what happened in Prince William Sound doesn't happen again," said Sen. Jim Duncan, DJuneau. "We didn't have proper planning, proper equipment and we did not know how to respond and we did not know how to protect the environment."
The bills, which now go to the House, have moved quickly through the Senate, a body previously reluctant to tighten environmental laws or increase taxes on the oil industry. But the Senate did both Saturday, although Republican senators went to great lengths to make sure no one called the tax increase a tax increase. Officially the nickelabarrel increase in severance tax is called a "conservation surcharge on oil."
The oil industry wasn't fooled. When lobbyist Ed Dankworth sat down in the visitors gallery Saturday morning, Sen. Jay Kerttula asked, "Did you bring us coffee and doughnuts?"
"Not for what you guys are doing," said Dankworth, officially the lobbyist for VECO, an oil field service company, and unofficially the Alaska oil industry's voice in the capitol.
Many of the bills were sponsored by the oil industry's biggest supporters in the Senate, including Senate President Tim Kelly and Sens. Jan Faiks and Drue Pearce, all Republicans from Anchorage. Kelly has said that is because the prooil senators feel more let down by the oil industry's poor response to the Prince William Sound oil spill.
The Senate's quick action the House is still deciding what should be in its spill bill package was taken against the best advice of Gov. Steve Cowper and some Senate leaders. And it was taken without the benefit of a commission that the Senate voted to create Saturday that is charged with coming up with changes to state environmental laws.
"We acted too hastily on many of these issues," said Sen. Johne Binkley, RBethel, who voted against all the bills except the one creating an investigative committee.
Many senators found something wrong with at least one of the bills; nothing passed unanimously. Sens. Jay Kerttula and Mike Szymanski, the two Democrats who represent Prince William Sound, voted for all the bills except the investigative committee.
"I felt that were other avenues that would be more effective," Kerttula said. "It was going to pass anyway, but I was a little bit concerned that if you get two many cooks you could spoil the stew and I think we have too many cooks holding investigations."
But the need to do something, anything, was strong.
"Legislators felt that there was public pressure to do something to demonstrate that the legislature is working on the issue," Binkley said.
Cowper said only the investigative committee should be passed this session and urged the legislature Friday to hold off on any major policy changes.
"I think we need to think about what we are doing," Cowper said. "And most of the people who are technically adept at these kinds of proposals are on the front lines, they are up to their ankles in oil and they haven't had much time to try to figure out where we go from here."
From the fourhour floor debate it was clear that the proposals which four days ago were in such poor shape Sen. Rick Uehling, cochairman of the Finance Committee, said, "You could drive a tanker through them" still had problems.
During debate on a section of one bill that would reduce higher penalties if an oil company successfully uses chemicals to disperse part of the spill, Sen. Bettye Fahrenkamp, chairwoman of the Resources Committee, said the issue could not be resolved in her committee because all the experts were in Valdez and "we did not have scientific knowledge."
The section was deleted from the bill.
Sen. Fred Zharoff, DKodiak, said he, too, worried that not enough time had been spent crafting the legislation. "We need to do something but if we are going to do something we need to do something responsible."
And no one knew exactly what it would look like when all the puzzle pieces were put together.
"I'm having a little difficulty, and I'm sure others are too, figuring out how these all fit together," said Sen. Dick Eliason, RSitka.
The bills approved by the Senate Saturday were:
* A measure sponsored by Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski, RAnchorage, prohibiting an oil company from writing off spill cleanup costs on its severance tax payments. The bill would apply to Exxon's costs. "This is to ensure that the state does not indirectly end up paying the costs for the wreck of the Exxon Valdez," Sturgulewski said.
* A measure sponsored by Duncan requiring the Department of Environmental Conservation to prepare a statewide master plan for clean up of oil spills and hazardous substance accidents.
* A measure sponsored by Kelly creating an oil and hazardous substance response office that would use volunteer corps in coastal communities for the initial response to spills. Several senators were concerned that by using volunteers and making spill response a state responsibility, the state could be held liable for environmental damage.
* A measure sponsored by Kerttula upping oil production tax by 5 cents a barrel to pay for what is required by all the oil spill legislation. The increase will raise $32 million the first year which will go into an oil spill fund. When the fund reaches $50 million, the tax will be suspended.
Sen. Al Adams, DKotzebue, failed in his attempt to increase the tax to 50 cents a barrel, which would have raised more than $300 million the first year. Said Adams, "$32 million in one year will not clean up the environment and the damage done in Prince William Sound."
Senators amended the bill to call the tax a "conservation surcharge," but as Kerttula said, "This is a severance tax. If you describe a duck it's a duck. Let's call it what it is."
* A measure sponsored by Faiks that creates a sevenmember commission to investigate the Prince William Sound oil spill and to recommend changes to state law so the same thing doesn't happen again. Originally Faiks had wanted the commission to include lawmakers, and representatives of Exxon, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the Coast Guard.
But Kelly led a move to take the special interests off the commission and put them in an advisory role. But that, too, was taken out of the proposal and it now includes just people appointed by the governor "who are not affiliated with any party directly related to the Exxon Valdez disaster."
* A measure sponsored by Pearce increasing penalties for oil spills. The bill also removes a $100 million ceiling on fines and allows the court to increase the fine by five times if the spill was caused by gross negligence or the company does not take "reasonable measures to contain and clean up the discharged oil."
"It's not like we are being easy on the industry because we are not," said Pearce.
But in the House a much tougher penalty bill, sponsored by Rep. Kay Brown, DAnchorage, is making its way to a vote.
If the House version is approved, the differences as well as those with any other bills the House passes will have to be worked out in negotiations between the two bodies.
story 105 of 380
story 5 of 72