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Oil spills can hurt wildlife, the scenic beauty of coasts, and people’s livelihoods. For these reasons, government, industry, and environmental groups have sought to find ways to prevent and respond to oil spills to avoid environmental damage while minimizing the costs of moving crude oil and refined products. Oil spills do not constitute the majority of oil pollution in the oceans. A report of the National Academy of Sciences found that “nearly 85 percent of the 29 million gallons of petroleum that enter North American ocean waters each year as a result of human activities comes from land-based runoff, polluted rivers, airplanes, and small watercraft.” Nevertheless, these spills are generally dispersedattention-grabbing oil spills are the ones that are large, near the shore, and do visible damage.
The damage done by oil spills is a function of at least three things: the nature of the oil spilled; the proximity of the spill to the shore where most marine life lives; and the nature of the weather, current, and tides. For example, when the Argo Merchant spilled seven million gallons of fuel oil (which is thicker than crude oil) in the waters near Nantucket in 1976, the damage was minor because currents took the oil out to sea. On the other hand, smaller oil spills from barges, pipelines, and small tankers can do significant environmental damage.
Thicker oil near shore does more damage than oil offshore, and refined petroleum products like gasoline or kerosene, while highly toxic, tend to evaporate when spilled into water. Large oil spills far out to sea tend not to do a great deal of environmental damage, because the oil “weathers” and breaks up before it reaches a shoreline. The worst sort of spills, and the ones that receive the most attention, are of crude or heavy fuel oil in bad weather near a shoreline.
Responding to Oil Spills
Oil spill responses are designed to contain or disperse oil before it does damage. Methods for containing oil include booms, which are floating barriers that keep oil from moving across the water; skimmers, which are boats with equipment designed to skim the oil out of the water; and chemical dispersants and detergents that break up the oil into smaller parts that will then disperse in the water column. This latter technique is very controversial: some argue that the dispersed oil still does damage while it is in the water, while others argue that it is best to disperse the oil before it can do worse damage on the shoreline. Other promising techniques include bioremediation, in which particular strains of bacteria are introduced into the water to eat the oil. In addition, some absorbent materials are showing promise in soaking up spilled oil. To reduce the impact on wildlife, responders may set off loud noises to scare animals away so they are not exposed to the oil.
Regardless of the response technique, large oil spills are complex environmental events that require expert management. Since the passage of the U.S. Oil Pollution Act in 1990, the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are in charge of oil spill cleanup in the United States; other federal agencies are asked for help as needed. Response costs can be recovered from the spiller. In the end, it is very rare to recover all or even most of the spilled oil, particularly in poor weather or when heavy oils are involved.
Historic Oil Spills and Public Policy
Oil spills did not receive much attention until the late 1960s, when the environmental movement gained prominence. In World War II, many tankers were sunk along the East and Gulf coasts by German submarines, spilling their loads of crude oil and refined products on beaches. These spills were not viewed as problems because the nation was at war. Even contemporary wars that spill oil receive relatively little attention compared with the war itself: Actions taken by the Iraqi regime during the 1991 Gulf War spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, and the Israeli bombing of a power station in Lebanon in 2006 resulted in a significant spill of fuel oil in the Mediterranean Sea.
The first major oil spill to receive worldwide attention was the Torrey Canyon spill off the United Kingdom. The response to the spill-including the attempt to set fire to the oil, and the use of detergents to break it up-was widely seen as inept, although international liability regulations for oil tankers did change because of the spill. The first major oil spill to gain similar attention in the United States was the 1969 Santa Barbara, California, oil spill, in which 200,000 gallons of oil spilled from an offshore well, killing wildlife, and leading to a famous picture of President Nixon walking along the oily beach. This spill was small by historic standards-less than 20 percent the size of the Exxon Valdez spill-but the spill came just as the modern environmental movement was finding its voice, and it was used by environmental groups as evidence that oil spills could do substantial damage. The Santa Barbara Spill resulted in a drilling moratorium on state lands in Santa Barbara Channel, and has greatly affected public perceptions of offshore drilling worldwide.
The next major oil spill to occur in the United States was the Argo Merchant spill off Nantucket. This spill did not do as much environmental damage as its size-7.7 million gallons-would suggest. However, the spill did initiate a 14-year-long debate over how oil transport should be regulated, and how liability should be assigned. This debate was brought to a swift conclusion when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil in one of the richest marine environments in the world. The Exxon Valdez spill was only the 35th largest in world history; the sheer size of the spill was less important than the nature of the oil and the damage it caused.
Before 1970 there were no laws to make oil spillers liable for cleanup costs and damages. The only tool available to make claims against shipping was the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. When applied by the courts, this statute often resulted in absurdly low liability limits. However, the law also provided that if the spill occurred intentionally or if the ship owner knew it could happen, the limits could be surpassed. Still, the complexity of this statute made this law unsuitable for forcing shippers to clean up oil, and did not cover offshore drilling at all.
The inadequacies of the Limitation of Liability Act led to the enactment of what is popularly known as the Clean Water Act of 1972. Section 311 established liability limits for owners of oil facilities and ship owners at $8 million for fixed facilities and the lesser of $100 per gross ton or $14 million for ships. Amendments in 1978 raised only ship owners’ liability to $150 per gross ton for ships and $125 per ton for barges. This limit was still seen as low, and did not serve as an effective incentive for ship and facility owners to operate more safely.
Section 311 also required that a national oil spill contingency plan be established with a fund to cover costs incurred by the federal government in cleaning up oil spills. This fund never reached its authorized size of $35 million, reaching at most $24 million in 1985. In 1973, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act created a similar fund for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), funded by a five cent per barrel tax on oil, with a $100 million cap. This level was reached in 1981, but investments raised its balance to $250 million. This fund was not called upon to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill, as Exxon chose to rely on its resources, but it is important to note that the fund was far smaller than the costs of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill. Other liability regimes were created by the Deepwater Port Act of 1974 and by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments. Safety regulations were enacted in the Tanker Safety Act of 1978 (Public Law 95-474), which addressed technical aspects of tanker equipment and personnel and was inspired by the Argo Merchant spill.
For years Congress was unable to agree on a comprehensive solution to the problem of oil spills, in large part because of disagreement between the House and Senate over whether federal liability laws should “preempt” state laws. The Senate generally favored retaining the state laws to create a greater incentive to avoid oil spills. The House sought a uniform national standard in large part to reduce the potential costs of transporting oils. The Exxon Valdez spill was the event that tipped the balance in favor of more stringent oil spill legislation. The spill, and Exxon’s response to it, caused so much public and congressional anger that the House ended up dropping its insistence of federal preemption of state law. With the preemption issue out of the way, oil spill legislation passed relatively easily, and President George H.W. Bush signed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) into law on August 18, 1990.
The OPA provides for vastly tougher penalties and liability for spillers of oil, allocates more resources for dealing with spills, and places more responsibility on the executive branch to respond to oil spill incidents promptly. The creation of the spill cleanup fund in the OPA was also a major accomplishment. The fund consolidated three smaller funds to create a bigger fund than ever before. At $1 billion, such a fund may not be sufficient to clean up the largest spill, but it still comes closer to the costs of cleaning up a spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez than did any of the other funds.
A final feature of the OPA was its requirement that oil companies phase in the use of double-hull tankers in U.S. waters. Such double hulls are said to be able to withstand collisions or groundings (the cause of both the Torrey Canyon and Exxon Valdez spills), although some experts have questioned their effectiveness. Since the OPA, the incidence of major oil spills in the United States and worldwide has dropped significantly. There has not been a major oil spill from a tanker or an offshore oil platform in U.S. coastal waters since 1990.
- Ann Cooper, “Oil Spills: Tanker Safety Legislation Pushed,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report (v.38, 1977);
- O. Easton, Black Tide: The Santa Barbara Oil Spill and Its Consequences (Delacorte Press, 1972);
- Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Final Report, State of Alaska Response (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, 1993);
- T.D. Hopkins, “Oil Spill Reduction and Costs of Ship Design Regulation,” Contemporary Policy Issues (v.10, 1992);
- Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester, “Accidental News: The Great Oil Spill as Local Occurrence and National Event,” American Journal of Sociology (v.81/2, 1975);
- T. Sylves, “How the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Changed America’s Oil Spill Emergency Management,” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (v.16/1, 1998);
- A. Wiens, “Oil, Seabirds and Science,” BioScience (v.46/8, 1996).