In an earlier version of The Pop Tort, my colleague discussed the SPACE Act- a bill recently passed out of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This bill would immunize private space companies from liability for any wrong doing- whether negligent, reckless or even intentional. The bill is expected to reach the House floor any day.
Little did I know, that was only the beginning of my dissent into what seems like a dimension of legislative madness. The deeper I looked into this proposal, the more surreal it becomes.
If the House version of the SPACE Act is enacted, not only would the private space industry be free from any liability for causing harm during a space launch or reentry, but they would also be free from government regulation for the next 8 years. Under the proposed law, the first time the Secretary of Transportation could propose any rule related to commercial space flight would be 2023!
In their infinite wisdom, a majority of the House Science Committee thinks federal regulators need this time to “learn” about potential regulations (even thought the government has been involved in space flight since the 1950’s). Even though this industry experienced major, high-profile disasters just last year, these Members of Congress think that private space companies should just regulate themselves for now, without any government oversight.
But the madness doesn’t stop there. The SPACE Act not only suspends all government regulation of space flight and immunizes private, commercial space corporations from any wrongdoing, but it also creates the likelihood that taxpayers will be the ones on the hook if something big goes wrong.
Section 7 of the SPACE Act, which takes away all civil causes of action against a private space corporation, could force states, cities and individuals to rely far more on the federal government for assistance in the event of a commercial space disaster during launch or reentry of a private spacecraft. That’s because in disaster situations, one criteria FEMA uses to determine the type and amount of emergency assistance it should provide is whether “compensation by insurance for disaster related losses” can cover costs. Section 7 of the SPACE Act make individual insurance claims against a negligent space company essentially impossible.
Often, when a disaster happens and there is inadequate liability insurance, FEMA will supplement state and local funds for rebuilding. If the negligentcorporation is not responsible for the costs involved, taxpayers may have to pick up at least part of the tab to rebuild schools, hospitals, roads, private businesses and homes. Taxpayers may also have to pay, at least in part, for disaster related death benefits and medical costs for individuals who are hurt because of the incident.
With very credible predictions of rockets carrying nuclear material, commercial mining of extraterrestrial minerals, and shuttling tourists to space, it is easy to see how an explosion or other catastrophe could cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money. To put it in perspective, containing the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant cost over $100 billion to partially contain (and costs continue to grow). In light of last week’s train crash in Pennsylvania, Amtrak estimated that it will cost over $52 billion just to get trains in a “good state of repair.” And these disasters didn’t involve the costs associated with a nuclear powered rocket possibly exploding miles into the Earths atmosphere.
In other words, “fiscal conservatives” who voted to slash the NASA budget, deny relief to Hurricane Sandy victims, and decrease food assistance for needy Americans, now want to give this possibly-huge, taxpayer-paid bonus to private, often foreign, corporations while releasing them from liability.
But even if Section 7 were omitted from the legislation (and state tort and property claims could still be filed), the law already provides that taxpayers subsidize dangerous commercial space activities. Under current law, space companies are only required to maintain $500 million in liability insurance. After that minimal amount, the federal government can indemnify the corporation for damages up to $1.5 billion dollars - assuming Congress appropriates the money. That means even if the space corporation can be held liable under the law, the taxpayers, not the private company at fault, could pay a huge part of the bill if something catastrophic happens.
The SPACE Act is so bizarre it seems to come from another dimension. Only in the Twilight Zone could ‘fiscal conservatives’ promote legislation to completely deregulate an industry, absolve them of any liability, and then force taxpayers to pay the bill if anything goes awry.