Full Title: Oil Spills: Background and Governance
Author(s): Jonathan L. Ramseur
Publisher(s): Congressional Research Service
Publication Date: September 1, 2017
Full Text: Download Resource
Oil is a primary source of energy in the United States. Domestic oil production has increased in recent years, and vast quantities of oil continually enter the country via vessel or pipeline, moving throughout the country to various destinations. With such widespread use and nonstop movement, it is inevitable that some number of spills will occur.
Oil spills have raised environmental concerns for decades. Several major U.S. oil spills have had lasting repercussions that transcended local environmental and economic effects: the1969 well blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara, California; the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska; and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. More recent spills in various locations from other sources, including pipelines and rail transportation, have garnered attention from policymakers. The impacts of an oil spill depend on the size of the spill, the rate of the spill, the type of oil spilled, and the location of the spill. Depending on timing and location, even a relatively minor spill can cause significant harm to individual organisms and entire populations. Oil spills can cause impacts over a range of timescales, from days to years, or even decades for certain spills.
Over the past two decades, the annual number and volume of oil spills have shown declines—in some cases, dramatic declines. However, this trend was altered dramatically by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident led to a significant release of oil: According to estimates, the well released more than 100 million gallons of oil before it was contained on July 15, 2010 (86 days later). Scientists continue to study the fate and impact of the spill.
The governing framework for oil spills in the United States remains a combination of federal, state, and international authorities. Within this framework, several federal agencies have the authority to implement oil spill regulations. Agency responsibilities can be divided into two categories: (1) oil spill response and cleanup and (2) oil spill prevention/preparedness.
Oil spill response authority is determined by the location of the spill: the U.S. Coast Guard has response authority in the U.S. coastal zone, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) covers the inland zone. The Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) in 1990, provides the federal authority to perform cleanup immediately using federal resources, monitor the response efforts of the spiller, or direct the spiller’s cleanup activities. The lead federal responder (either from Coast Guard or EPA) determines the level of cleanup required. Federal responders have immediate access to funds in the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to support cleanup activities. The trust fund is primarily financed by a per-barrel tax on domestic crude oil and imported petroleum products. The fund’s balance is estimated to reach $5.4 billion at the end of FY2017.
Parties responsible for an oil spill may be liable for cleanup costs, natural resource damages, and specific economic damages, including personal property damage and lost profits or earning capacity. OPA provided (1) limited defenses from liability—act of God, act of war, and act or omission of certain third parties—and (2) conditional liability limits (or caps) for cleanup costs and other damages.
Jurisdiction over oil spill prevention and preparedness duties is determined by the potential sources (e.g., vessels, facilities, pipelines) of oil spills. A series of executive orders, coupled with memoranda of understanding, have established the various agency responsibilities. For example, EPA oversees onshore facilities, the Coast Guard oversees vessels, the Department of Transportation oversees pipelines and rail transportation, and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management oversees offshore facilities (e.g., oil platforms).