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Friday, February 1, 2013

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.

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 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. 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 111
th 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 112
th 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 Gulf states.


Date of Report: January 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: RL33705
Price: $29.95

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