House, Senate introducing separate launch indemnification extension bills

With the current commercial launch indemnification regime, which protects companies from third-party damages that exceed a level those companies must insure against, set to expire at the end of this calendar year, the House and Senate made moves Wednesday to provide an extension. However, the two houses disagree on how long that extension should be.

Late Wednesday, the Republican and Democratic leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee announced the introduction of HR 3547, legislation that would extend the launch indemnification regime for one year. The bill is sponsored by full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), along with space subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and ranking member Donna Edwards (D-MD). The bill offers a “clean” extension, with no other provisions; the text of the bill runs only a little more than one page.

The comments in the committee press release indicate that Republican leadership was interested in a longer extension, but that Democrats on the committee preferred a short-term extension in order to study whether the indemnification system was still needed. “While a longer extension would have been preferable, this bipartisan compromise bill will at least provide temporary stability to our commercial space industry by protecting companies against third party liability costs,” Smith said in the statement. Johnson, meanwhile, said that the looming expiration of indemnification “should not and must not detract us from the greater goal of examining this and other commercial space issues comprehensively.”

At a hearing on commercial space held by the space subcommittee, Edwards also called for a short-term extension in order to buy time for broader studies of commercial space issues. “I hope that, over this next year, we will take to the task of doing the kind of oversight hearings we need to give the commercial space industry the kind of certainty that we need with respect to indemnification, and we can only do that if we get the FAA in here and get experts in so that we can look at the future environment and climate with respect to commercial activity,” she said.

A key senator, though, has a different plan. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) was, as of late yesterday, planning to introduce a separate launch indemnification bill. It, too, would be a clean bill, but would instead offer a three-year extension through the end of 2016. According to a source familiar with the senator’s plans, Nelson planned to seek expedited consideration of the bill by the full Senate to get passage via unanimous consent as soon as Thursday.

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