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November 14, 1989
Tankers full of trouble

Battle in Congress
Big oil spends cash by the barrel to keep double bottoms from becoming a rule

What a president of the United States and several senators couldn't accomplish, environmentalists hope the Exxon Valdez oil spill can.

For the past 15 years, efforts to force oil companies to build tankers with double bottoms or double hulls have failed in Congress.

The debate seems to arise after major oil spills, but the outcome is always the same: Big oil companies and shipping interests persuade members of Congress to vote against it, even in the face of studies showing that double bottoms would prevent oil spills.

This year, in the wake of the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in March — the worst spill in the nation's history — those efforts were rekindled.

Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., introduced an amendment on the Senate floor in August that would have required virtually all newly built tankers operating in U.S. waters to be equipped with double hulls. The vote was close, 51-48, but the amendment failed.

A different measure that passed the Senate, however, may eventually accomplish the same thing. That measure says the Coast Guard has a year to study the issue, and if it can't prove that double bottoms shouldn't be required, the Coast Guard must issue a rule mandating them. The House is considering it, and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is trying to get an immediate requirement.

Adams concedes that oil-company money could still defeat the effort. In the 1988 congressional campaigns, candidates received more than $1.7 million from the oil companies involved in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. And key members of the Senate and House committees that deal with double-bottom legislation are from Louisiana, a state where the oil industry is particularly powerful.

Adams says he is more confident than ever that double bottoms will be required by law by next year, at least.

"I think now that we have a good chance that the Coast Guard may put in a regulation for double bottoms," he says. "I think there is a good chance because environmental concerns are at a high level."

However, environmental concerns were also high during the mid- and late-1970s, following catastrophic oil spills off the East Coast of the United States, and later off the north coast of France. Several double-bottom proposals went down to defeat during those years.

In January 1975, Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., introduced a bill almost identical to Adams' amendment, except that it required double bottoms instead of double hulls.

In 1976, President Jimmy Carter instructed the Coast Guard to develop new regulations requiring, among other things, double bottoms on new tankers. The president also asked for the convening of an international convention to consider double bottoms and other safety measures as a worldwide requirement.

The convention was held in 1978, convened by a United Nations agency now known as the International Maritime Organization. Adams was secretary of transportation at the time, and his representative to the London meeting was one of his deputies, Alan Butchman.

The shipping nations at the convention overwhelmingly defeated a U.S. proposal to require double bottoms by treaty. Only France — the victim of the giant Amoco Cadiz spill that year — joined the United States in supporting the double-bottom requirement for newly built tankers, says Daniel Sheehan, technical adviser for the Coast Guard's Office of Marine Safety.

Oil companies hedged these bets at the time by designing new ships with double bottoms, including two 188,000-ton tankers that ARCO launched in 1979.

But Magnuson's dream of requiring double bottoms died in the arena of international oil politics. After the convention, Congress was reluctant to require U.S. ships to have double bottoms when foreign competitors didn't have to.

Instead, Congress passed a bill adopting what had been approved at the international convention: a requirement that shipping companies locate tankers' ballast tanks where they would protect cargo tanks during a grounding or collision.

Ballast tanks are empty when a ship is loaded with crude oil, but they never protect more than 45 percent of a tanker hull even with the new requirement, studies show.

At the convention, the opposition to a double-bottom requirement came from shipping nations such as Great Britain, Norway and Greece. But even Adams — who as transportation secretary was in charge of the Coast Guard — acknowledges that the agency didn't fight tenaciously for double bottoms.

At best, Adams says, the Coast Guard was lukewarm to the idea. Adams says the Coast Guard representatives did what he told them to do, but the agency was concerned about the expense of double bottoms and technical arguments against them.

"The Coast Guard has always tended to favor the maritime industry," Adams says.

University of Washington naval engineering Professor Richard Storch, who participated in several double-bottom studies at the time, puts it more bluntly. He says the Coast Guard was a "bureaucratic weak sister" easily sidestepped by the powerful oil and shipping industries.

The head of the Coast Guard contingent at the international convention, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. William Benkert, acknowledges that Magnuson was upset because Benkert didn't push harder for double bottoms. He says the Coast Guard didn't have a very strong case to make for double bottoms.

"We had some groundings, yes. We also had a lot of collisions in which, obviously, double bottoms are not a lot of help," Benkert says. "We felt, and I think I can speak for most of us that were involved, that we did not have a strong, overpowering statistical case to warrant double-bottom construction."

After double-bottom proposals were defeated in 1978, no further legislation was introduced and no more double-bottom studies were conducted.

Now, at the request of the Coast Guard, the National Research Council has begun a study of double bottoms and other possible changes in tanker design, a study that will be done next year, says Charles Bookman, director of the research council's marine board.

Adams says if double bottoms aren't required everywhere in the United States, he'll try for a measure imposing them on tankers sailing from Alaska to the West Coast, where only U.S. ships operate. Meanwhile, Adams says he thinks the United States is too small and weak in the world of shipping these days to influence the rest of the world to impose double bottoms.

"I think we should we try again," he says, "but I'm not very optimistic."

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