AS THE HOUSE AND THE SENATE argue over the details of oil spill legislation, they risk losing sight of what should be their main priority: to reduce the likelihood of major oil spills and, in the case of oil spill damage, provide the means for quick and effective management, cleanup and compensation. Despite their agreement on most of the prescriptions for pollution control, they haven't come up with a compromise. Congress can and must work around the main issue holding up the show.

As two letters on this page indicate, many members of the House, and the tanker industry, continue to support U.S. adoption of standards set by a set of international protocols, amendments to an international maritime agreement negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations. The protocols would establish a world fund for oil spill cleanup and set limits to the liability of tanker owners.Responsibility for ratifying those protocols, however, rests entirely with the Senate; theHouse simply has no role in the process. The Senate has made it perfectly clear that the protocols will not be approved. Under those circumstances, insisting that the protocols be accepted in the oil spill bill is tantamount to opposing passage of this badly needed legislation.

The bill, which is now in a House-Senate conference committee, is a responsible piece of legislation that goes far to prevent and control oil spill damage. Both houses agree that there should be a national fund, provided by revenue from a 5-cent-a-barrel oil tax, to pay for any spill costs beyond shipowners' ability to pay. Both provide for shipowners to bear unlimited liability in the case of gross negligence. And each bill would set limits, albeit different ones, on the amount for which shipowners can be held financially responsible for accidents beyond their control. Most important, both the House and Senate give high priority to damage prevention and mitigation.

At this point, further debate over the merits of the Senate's position is simply not constructive. The United States will not be adhering to the international protocols in their present form. It's time for the House to accept that. The alternative, to pass no oil spill legislation at all, is one no responsible member of Congress should be willing to contemplate.

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