OPA 90 changes would hit barge industry hard

Congress comes back to work after a summer break on Monday, Sept. 13, with a boatload of unfinished business. But there’s one piece of legislation that we’re hoping lawmakers are too busy to address.

In response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, Congress crafted a number of bills aimed at curbing risks associated with oil production and offshore drilling. But in the rush to make things better, lawmakers are making things worse for the barge industry.

Barging will suffer the most from changes proposed to existing oil pollution prevention laws — most notably OPA 90 — which is regarded as a highly successful anti-spill law.

For example, a bill now before the Senate would allow unlimited damages for maritime torts, double OPA 90 limits on liability, and expand response plan requirements for tank and non-tank vessels. In short, if passed as currently written, it will impact the business climate and bottom line of many barge companies.

The next few weeks will be critical to the future of this legislation. If Congress returns still feeling the political sting of the oil spill, leaders might feel compelled to push the legislation to a conclusion before they recess for the November elections in early October.

But there’s still the possibility that nothing will happen, as lawmakers return to work with many other distractions. Given current public opinion polls, Democrats will be worried that they might lose their jobs. Republicans, smelling opportunity, will want to emphasize the weaknesses of their opponents.

Other issues loom large: renewing unemployment benefits, passing a small business jobs bill and passing a continuing budget resolution to keep the government operating beyond the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

And lawmakers might just run out of time — and spine. Facing a tough re-election climate, Congress is actually considering adjourning for the year one week early — at the end of the month, not the first week in October, so that vulnerable lawmakers can go home and campaign.

Against this backdrop, let’s hope that legislators take a pass on the Deepwater Horizon bills this fall, at least until lawmakers — including many new ones elected this November — return in 2011. At that time, they’ll be able to take a fresh look at the issues and more fully understand the consequences of the changes they propose.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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