Jonathan L. Ramseur Specialist in Environmental Policy
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
Based on data between 1973 and 2009, 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 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
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. 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.
As with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon
spill generated significant attention to various oil spill policy
matters, including prevention, preparedness, response, and liability and
compensation. The 111th Congress enacted three oil
spill-related proposals into law (P.L. 111-191, P.L. 111-212, and P.L.
111-281), but these laws generally concerned short-term matters that will
not have a lasting impact on oil spill governance.
In general, oil spill-related issues garnered less attention during the 112th Congress. The 112th Congress
enacted two statutes that contain oil spill-related provisions. P.L. 112-90
includes several oil spill-related provisions involving pipelines. P.L.
112-141 includes a subtitle referred to as the RESTORE Act. This act
directs 80% of any administrative and civil Clean Water Act Section 311
penalties connected with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill into a
newly created trust fund. Monies from this fund, through various
mechanisms, will support environmental and economic restoration in the
Date of Report: January 14, 2013
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