OIL SPILL LEGISLATION COMPROMISE STILL HAS A LONG WAY TO GO

OIL SPILL LEGISLATION COMPROMISE STILL HAS A LONG WAY TO GO

A reporter's notebook ran aground recently, and because it was not outfitted with a double hull or double bottom, here's what leaked:

Looking for a leader: The most convivial moment of the otherwise testy first meeting last week of House and Senate conferees on oil spill legislation came within the first minute of the session, when they elected Rep. Walter B. Jones, D-N.C., chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, to chair the conference.No one is quite sure what the title entails, but it turned out to include a good deal of polite refereeing.

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LOOKING FOR A LEVER: Not too long thereafter, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., attempted the first slick maneuver of the conference when he tried to make the latest Senate offer on spill legislation - which the House has not responded to - the starting point for the conferees' deliberations on a final compromise package.

Rep. W.J. Tauzin, D-La., said the House should have the chance to respond to the Senate offer before using it as the basis for discussion.

That put a stop to the senator's try for parliamentary leverage.

Referring to the huge number of conferees, 76 in all, Rep. Tauzin said: ''I want to keep this conference less complicated than the seating chart . . . Given time, our staffs may come up with a common platform."

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LOOKING FOR AN EXIT: The conferees then bogged down badly in a debate over whether to include language putting two international oil spill agreements into effect in the bill. It's a crucial issue that has ramifications on spiller liability and state spill laws, but it's also essentially a moot issue, because the Senate has to ratify the agreements before they can take effect, and that is not going to happen.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, opposes the inclusion of the agreements, known as the 1984 protocols, in oil spill legislation. He noted the Senate has not ratified them for five years and is not likely to do so now if he has anything to say about it.

Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., acknowledged the futility of the debate: "It seems to be a law of physics. The greatest energy is spent on the least important topics."

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LOOKING FOR A TAX BREAK: There's "an odd thing going on," said a source, concerning another major conference issue: how to fashion a new double-hull, double-bottom tanker requirement.

Both sides have been trying to outpoint each other on how stringent the requirement will be and how much time operators will have to meet it.

An industry source said the House and Senate "appeared to be moving to a rational scheme" but then were sidetracked by proposals floated by a U.S. tanker operator.

The proposals include tax breaks in the form of slower depreciation schedules for old vessels, 100 percent government-guaranteed financing of the new tanker fleet under the Title XI loan program, deferral of interest on Title XI loans for 10 years and the sale of old vessels to the government's reserve fleet at fair market value.

It's an "independent operator's dream," said a source, but it is being seriously debated. While it contains special interest provisions, it doesn't hurt the bottom lines of two other special interests: shipbuilders that want to build new tankers and environmentalists who want double-bottom, double-hull tankers to be built.