A congressional conference committee yesterday broke a major logjam in oil spill legislation, rejecting a trial U.S. participation in international accords that would limit compensation for victims of accidents.
The conference, by voice vote, substituted non-binding provisions stating that it is in "the best interests of the United States" to participate in the agreements. But that does not alter the current ability of states to impose their own liability rules in cases where oil spills foul their waters.
Alaska, for example, was able to impose unlimited liability on the operators of the U.S.-registered Exxon Valdez, the tanker that spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound last year. Alaska could have held the operators of a foreign-flag vessel to the same standard but would not be able to if the international limits were in force.
The agreement will allow members of the House-Senate committee on July 12 to turn to the remaining major issues in the legislation: amounts of civil and criminal penalties to be imposed under federal law and whether to require double hulls on oil tankers.
Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) proposed that the United States join the international agreements, which were negotiated in 1984, for a five-year trial if they were modified to comply with federal and state liability laws. If the modifications were not made at the end of five years, the United States would withdraw from the agreements.
The House conferees unanimously approved the proposal, but the Senate members, led by Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), held out for the ability of states to lay down their own rules.
The House side then came back with the "sense of Congress" advisory provisions that won acceptance.