U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens has the right idea in trying to replenish the federal government's oil spill response fund. He wants to renew the 5-cents-per-barrel fee that originally built up the fund in the early 1990s.
Since the per barrel fee expired in 1994, the spill response fund has shrunk considerably. The only reason it hasn't run out of money sooner is that it has been propped up with transfers from other federal funding sources. Those transfer funds have dried up, and recurring income from interest, penalties and spillers' repayments is minimal.
Alaska has an especially strong interest in the spill response fund. It was lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill that led Congress to create the fund as part of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. One of the two most expensive spills now drawing on the fund is the Selendang Ayu, a freighter that wrecked offshore of Unalaska. Beyond that, Sen. Stevens steers about $5 million a year from the fund to spill research in Prince William Sound and to the Denali Commission, for bulk fuel tank upgrades in the Bush.
Sen. Stevens' bill simply restores the 5-cents-per-barrel fee, for as long as it's needed to keep $3 billion in the spill fund. But there are other issues with the fund that could use the senator's attention. The Selendang Ayu spill highlights a basic inequity in how the spill fund is financed. The money can be used to deal with oil spills from freighters (not just oil tankers and fuel barges), but freighters do not contribute money to the spill fund. That's inherently unfair.
Congress should take a second look at the low liability limits set in the law for no-fault spills. As the senator noted in announcing his bill, ''because the Oil Pollution Act liability limits has not been adjusted since 1990, OSLTF (Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund) has a disproportionately large portion of spill clean up costs.'' The Coast Guard noted in a recent report on the spill fund, ''an increase in the liability limits for such vessels may be desirable to better reflect the 'polluter pays' policy that is the foundation of the Oil Pollution Act.''
The 1990 law, with the spill response fund, is one of the good things that came out of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Having a reserve fund ensures the nation is ready to deal with a spill from the start, instead of haggling over who will pay the bills. That fund needs a secure, steady source of money, and Sen. Stevens' measure would provide it.
Anchorage Daily News,
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