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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oil Spills in U.S. Coastal Waters: Background and Governance

Jonathan L. Ramseur
Specialist in Environmental Policy

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 time scales, from days to years, or even decades for certain spills.

On April 20, 2010, an explosion occurred at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in 11 fatalities. The incident led to a significant release of oil: according to the federal government’s estimate, the well released approximately 206 million gallons of oil before it was contained on July 15. The 2010 Gulf oil spill generated considerable interest in oil spill governance issues.

This report provides background information regarding oil spills in U.S. coastal waters and identifies the legal authorities governing oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup. Based on data between 1973 and 2009, the annual number and volume of oil spills have shown declines— in some cases, dramatic declines.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaskan waters played a large role in stimulating actions that contributed to this trend, particularly the decrease in the annual spill volumes. The Exxon Valdez spill highlighted the need for stronger legislation, inflamed public sentiment, and spurred Congress to enact comprehensive oil spill legislation, resulting in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-380). This law expanded and clarified the authority of the federal government and created new oil spill prevention and preparedness requirements. Moreover, the 1990 legislation strengthened existing liability provisions, providing a greater deterrent against spills.

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 covers the inland zone. Jurisdiction over oil spill prevention and preparedness duties is determined by the potential sources (e.g., vessels, facilities, pipelines) of oil spills.

Date of Report: January 1
1, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R
Price: $29.95

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