JUNEAU -- Last month Alaskans began the second season of cleaning miles of beaches that remain fouled by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
We have willingly returned to the shores of Prince William Sound to remove as much of the remaining oil as we can so that it will not cause lasting damage to fish and wildlife, to our once-pure waters and to the people who live in the small communities along our coast.
We are not willing, however, to accept the complacency that has settled over Washington about taking the necessary steps to prevent a similar disaster in the future. Federal oil-spill legislation, the subject of nearly a dozen congressional hearings and thousands of letters from concerned Americans in the months following the March 24, 1989, spill, has languished for months in a House-Senate conference committee. What only a few months ago was so pressing now seems passe'.
The legislation would break new ground for the first time in a decade by imposing stiffer fines for oil spills, creating a large federal fund to pay for cleanups, establishing tougher standards for the construction and operation of oil tankers and setting up a nationwide program of oil-spill strike teams. Our experience and the findings of months of research by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission show that prevention works far better than cleanup. The Oil Compensation and Liability Act of 1989 is designed to do exactly that.
Unfortunately, the two houses of Congress are squaring off over issues in the bills that have stymied further progress. Various special interest groups are eroding the broad consensus that existed in Congress and throughout the country only a few months ago.
The two greatest stumbling blocks to final action are differences about international protocols governing tankers involved in oil spills and about tanker design, specifically whether double hulls and double bottoms should be required.
Developed in 1984, the Protocols to the International Conventions on Civil Liability would establish international standards governing liability for oil-spill damages. But they severely limit the ability of individual states to set more rigorous standards, and they prohibit the recovery of damages to natural resources. For example, under the protocols, an oil spiller would be liable only for the first $78 million in cleanup costs. Exxon spent that much in the first few days of the Alaska spill; to date the bills for cleanup and compensation total more than $2 billion.
The protocols also limit liability. The only time a spiller could be held fully liable for cleanup costs and environmental damages is when it could be proved that the crew acted in such a way that it clearly knew a spill would result. Without the protocols, the proposed new federal law requires an easier-to-prove gross negligence standard.
The protocols may seem arcane, but in the event of a major spill on your shores, here's what would happen with them in place: the spiller gets off easy, the lawyers get rich and you're left holding the bag.
The House voted 279 to 143 to preserve the rights of states to adopt their own spill laws. Now the oil transportation industry and other interested parties are working quietly to overturn that consensus by pushing for adoption of the protocols.
Alaska and many other coastal states from California to Maine oppose those agreements. We believe tanker operators should live by stricter rules. As a result, many states, including Alaska, have laws that hold spillers fully liable for their damages regardless of crew negligence.
The second major subject of dispute is whether oil tankers should be built to better standards. Most tankers operating in American waters have only one relatively thin steel hull.
A Coast Guard study showed that if the Exxon Valdez had been equipped with a double hull, it would have spilled 60 percent less oil, reducing considerably the damage to Prince William Sound. The recent Long Beach spill, caused when an anchor punctured the hull, might have been avoided altogether had the American Trader been built with a double hull.
Double hulls and double-bottom tanker construction cost more -- about 6 to 15 percent on the cost of a new tanker -- but the protection to the environment is worth it. Such a requirement could cost Alaska about $10 million a year in lost revenues, but the state is prepared to pay that price to avoid another Exxon Valdez.
Both versions of congressional oil-spill legislation would require double hulls and double bottoms -- immediately on new tankers and within a reasonable period of time on existing ships (although the Senate bill provides a loophole permitting the requirement to be suspended by the secretary of transportation).
Opposition to double hulls and double bottoms by powerful maritime interests and the oil industry has helped stall progress on the entire legislative package. Recent proposals circulated by committee members have scaled back significantly the tough regimes voted overwhelmingly by the full House and Senate.
The United States is poised to set historic new standards for the transportation of a product on which every American depends -- crude oil. Some 77 percent of the oil consumed in the United States is moved by tankers. The chances of a disastrous spill are as great in the Lower 48 as in Alaska.
The members of the conference committee should be encouraged to do the right thing: all of us will benefit from legislation that makes oil spills less likely.
The writer, a Democrat, is governor of Alaska.