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Katy Penrod

Honors 222 A
U.S. Law and Marine Oil
Oil is an essential part of the American way of life. It is used to fuel transport vehicles, to
heat homes, to make plastics, to form solvents, so on and so forth. All told, petroleum products
supply the United States with about 40% of its energy needs (Ramseur). As such, a tremendous
amount of oil is shipped in and out of the country, refined, and consumed each year. According to
the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2014 the U.S. consumed a total of
some 5.1 billion barrels of petroleum products, or an average of 13,973 thousand barrels per day
(International Energy and Data Analysis). For comparison, Americas neighbors up North in
Canada consume about 4,383 thousand gallons per day on average, or only a third of the United
States daily consumption (International Energy and Data Analysis). With this much oil being
transported in and out of American borders and within them, some amount of spilling is
inevitable. And though spills vary in their impact levels depending on environmental and oilspecific factors, oil is an inherently toxic substance so any spilling is detrimental. Thus, there
must be effective legislation in place to ensure proper cleanup and restoration, compensation to
those harmed, and culpability for those taking part in the oil manufacture and shipping processes.
This paper will examine how marine oil spill legislation has changed over time due to increased
knowledge of oil and its impacts, changes in public opinion, and major spill events including the
Argo Merchant, Alvenus, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills.
In order to fully grasp the environment in which oil legislation functions, one must
understand how the balance of power between oil companies, governments, and organizations
came to be. In the early 1900s, the development of new technologies allowed for petroleum to

become an important source of energy and a booming business. At this time, economic rather
than environmental considerations drove a significant shift from coal to oil (though coal was and
is, of course still in use, oil and other petroleum products have become the dominant source of
fuel in the U.S. and around the world). Though environmental considerations became a
widespread concern in the 1920s, a lack of effective institutions for dealing with environmental
problems related to oil as well as a dearth of technical understanding of the long-term
implications of oil pollution led to a lack of action (Pratt). Since no government or other non-oilaffiliated organizations stepped in to address environmental concerns, oil companies were able to
use their near monopoly of the limited technical information regarding oil available to make the
case that they were the best suited to address environmental issues. Thus, despite what was
clearly a major conflict of interest, oil companies were able to control the public debate
surrounding oil and prevented any actions being taken that might harm their profits (Pratt). This
resulted in lack of effective regulation that allowed for significant pollution to water and
surrounding environments through run-off from manufacturing plants but, more importantly,
caused shipping vessels to be largely unregulated when they began a shift to oil-dominant fuel
transport and continued to rapidly expand in number and size. Between 1914 and 1922, the
number of American-owned tankers increased by about 450% and the amount carried by each
tanker increased by some 850%. Though some precautions were introduced to control oil
pollution, they did not keep up with the rapid adoption of new technologies and expansion of oil
transport (Pratt).
In the following years, government representatives and influential social groups realized
things were not headed in an environmentally sound direction, and worked to introduce
legislation that would reduce ocean pollution caused by oil. These attempts were moderately

successful. The first bill produced was the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (a.k.a. the Jones Act)
which called for the promotion and maintenance of the American Merchant Marine and
established the requirement that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports (i.e. domestic
shipments) be carried on a U.S. flag ship (those owned and operated by the U.S.) (Jones Act).
The Merchant Marine Act is a foundational document in marine oil spill legislation, as the
concept of flag-states and ships is a major factor in determining culpability. Four years later, the
Oil Pollution Act of 1924 was established. This bill was not nearly as strong as the Jones Act,
and effectively had little clout and many loopholes making it a clear victory for the oil industry
(Pratt). Meanwhile, an international conference was held by the Bureau of Mines (BOM) which
had emerged as the primary government agency investigating oil pollution to discuss the effects
of oil in the environment. The BOM was closely affiliated with the American Petroleum Institute
(API), a major oil industry trade association, and the resulting report reflected the interests of the
oil industry, calling for reasonable and practicable federal legislation and warning against
discriminatory legislation directed at any particular industry (read: the oil industry) (Pratt). As
Ill elaborate on below, strides have been made in oil spill legislation since the 1920s, but the oil
industry but this foundation of oil industry supremacy has made major developments difficult.
Beginning in the 1970s, a slew of major marine oil spills brought the issue of oil transport
and manufacture regulation to the forefront of public consciousness. On December 15, 1975, the
Argo Merchant, a Liberian tanker carrying about 183,000 barrels of No. 6 fuel oil from Puerto La
Cruz, Venezuela and heading for Boston, Massachusetts ran aground on the Nantucket Shoals of
the latter state, an area that provided habitat to endangered birds and included sensitive coastal
salt marches (Farrington). The captain of the ship requested and was denied permission to empty
cargo from the ship to attempt to re-float it. The next day, weather worsened and the crew was

evacuated. Twenty-four hours later, the vessel began to pivot and buckle, eventually splitting in
two, resulting in the dumping of all 183,000 barrels of oil from the ship (making it the largest
tanker spill in U.S. history until the Exxon Valdez spill a little over two decades later). Weather
conditions made accessibility and cleanup difficult. In-situ burning was tried, but the oil could
not sustain a burn, and no other major attempts were made due to strong winds and heavy wave
action (Argo Merchant).
Later analysis found that the spill was caused by poor vessel management and crew
preparation along with easily preventable (or at least fixable if they have been noticed
beforehand) mistakes like a broken gyrocompass and insufficient charts (Pavia). The spill was
massive, and the sheer scope along with the knowledge that it was preventable garnered the
attention of the public, national government, and interest groups. Senator Edward Kennedy
created the Oil Spill off Nantucket, Massachusetts, 1976, one of several new subcommittees
focused on oil regulation. Additionally, between 1976 and 1980, eighty-one agencies and many
citizens provided legal testimony regarding the spill (Kurtz). Ultimately, the uproar from all sides
caused President Jimmy Carter, in 1977, to call for the development of a comprehensive
legislative and executive coastal spill program, which, in turn, led to a set of congressional
oversight and legislative hearings that contributed to the amendment of the Federal Water
Pollution Control Act (a.k.a. the Clean Water Act) (Kurtz). Finally and arguably most
importantly, the Argo Merchant spill was the first time that the International Convention Relating
to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties (or, for short, the
Intervention Convention) was used (Pavia). The Intervention Convention, established on
November 29, 1969 gives the coastal state the right to take such measures on the high seas as
may be necessary to prevent, mitigate, or eliminate danger to its coastline or related interests

from pollution by oil or threat thereof (IMO). In other words, the convention established that
the port-state (where the ship was headed) could take action to protect threat to itself despite not
having ownership of the vessel. Prior to the Intervention Convention, the flag-state (state the
vessel is registered under) had exclusive rights to action taken on its vessel. In this case of the
Argo Merchant, the U.S. Coast Guard claimed their right to board the Argo vessel and do their
best to salvage the situation, despite the fact that the vessel was in international waters (Pavia).
On July 30, 1984 the United Kingdom Vessel Alvenus, grounded on the Clacasieu River
Bar in Louisiana. As with the Argo Merchant, the ship buckled, causing it to discharge oil, this
time some 2.7 million gallons of Venezuelan Merey and Pilon crude oil (Alejandro & Buri).
Rough waves and the sheer magnitude of the spill made on-water cleanup largely ineffective.
Fortunately, beach cleanup crews were reasonably prepared for the 75-mile thick slick of oil
when it traversed over 100 miles and reached Texas beaches on August 3rd-4th. They were able to
use protective booms and manual cleanup to prevent oil from reaching the shore, which housed
sensitive inland estuaries, and clean some of the oil that did with minimal environmental damage
(Alejandro & Buri). However, some of the slick absorbed suspended particles on its way to the
shore and sank in the nearshore waters of Galveston Island, causing the Coast Guard to have to
have to wait until the oil beached itself to begin cleaning, which took several weeks and caused
significant environmental disturbance as oiled sand had to be removed (Alejandro & Buri).
Only five years later, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker headed from Valdez,
Alaska for Long Beach California, collided with Bligh Reef (in Prince William Sound, Alaska),
causing it to run aground. The impact of the collision caused the ships eleven cargo tanks to tear,
releasing some 10.8 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound (Kurtz).
The spill was devastating for the pristine and highly sensitive ecosystems of the Prince William

Sound. Oil inundated 1,100 miles of shoreline as well as large sections of national forest and
national park wilderness, killing tens of thousands of water birds and other marine and forest
wildlife and halting booming fisheries industry of the region (Kurtz). Booming, burning,
skimmers, and dispersants were all used to try and clean the spill to various levels of effect,
though bad weather made all types of cleanup methods much more difficult (Exxon Valdez
As is the case today, the governing framework for addressing oil spills at the time of the
Exxon Valdez Spill was a combination of federal, state, and international authorities (structured in
an Incident Command System, established in 1968, that delineates who is in command,
jurisdictional boundaries, and resource allocation) (Pavia). Within this framework, several
federal agencies have the authority to implement oil spill regulations and address spills by
considering a timeline of objectives (goals of response) strategies (approach taken to reach
objectives) tactics (specific methods used to carry out strategies) assignments (delegation
of tactics) results (which are documented to measure performance and facilitate corrective
action) (Pavia). In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, the previously mentioned Clean Water Act
(1972) as well as the Deepwater Port Act (1974), Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act
(1973), Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments (1978), and National Oil and Hazardous
Substance Pollution Contingency Plan (1968) were in effect. On the one hand, it is good that
there was substantial legislation in place to help address the implications of the spill. On the
other hand, the multitude of documents caused significant ambiguity and inaction, as they
provided a patchwork of rules and regulations rather than one strong, unified, comprehensive set
of laws (Ramseur). The main problem with a patchwork rather than unified approach is that it
makes deadlocks far too common as many documents compete for precedence rather than one

law being carried out. Issues like who should be held liable (the owner of the cargo, the ship
owner, the maker of the defective parts, the crew etc.) are ambiguous because there are so many
laws to be drawn from, meaning legal disputes can be carried on for many years, deterring action
from being taken. This is a huge problem given that oil spill response is a race against time
the longer oil is let be, the more it advects, emulsifies, and evaporates and the more it harms
local organisms) (Pavia). Other issues brought up after the Exxon Valdez that resulted from
ambiguity and following inaction included whether ships should be required to have double hulls
and what extent local laws should be able to supersede international regulations (Ramseur).
In an attempt to address the overlapping regulations, President H.W. Bush signed the Oil
Pollution Act (OPA) in 1990. In the act, congress consolidated the existing federal marine oil
spill laws into one program, expanded the existing liability provisions within the Clean Water
Act, and created new requirements regarding oil spill prevention and response (Ramseur). The
OPA increased liability (allowing for the possibility of unlimited liability) and civil penalties. It
also established a requirement of financial responsibility that holds the polluter accountable for
paying the response and damage costs (while also developing a $ 2 billion Oil Spill Liability
Trust Fund to assist with federal response) (Pavia). In regards to prevention and response, the
OPA established DPSIR (Driving forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, and Responses), a set of
conceptsthat provides a framework for spill assessment that is unified, comprehensive, and
applicable for all spills. Within DPSIR, OPA established stricter crew licensing and manning
standards, expanded response capabilities and requirements, and broadened enforcement
authority. Moreover, OPA cleared up the debate about tanker hulls, establishing a twenty-five
year phase-in of required double hulls (Pavia). Lastly, OPA expanded the scope of the National

Contingency Plan; among other things, the President is now responsible for establishing a set of
procedures and standards for responding to worst-case spill scenarios (Ramseur).
As long as oil continues to be the dominant source of fuel for America and the world,
clear, unified, and comprehensive regulations are needed to ensure that spills can be prevented,
or at least dealt with in the most efficient manner. The United States has made significant
improvements to its marine oil spill laws in the last century that have undoubtedly considerably
lessened negative effects on organisms, people, and markets. That being said, there is still room
for improvement. The continuing incidents of major spills, as evidenced by the most recent
Deepwater Horizon and BP Oil spills, demonstrate the need to address the ability of liable parties
to use the legal process as a way of delaying action (at the expense of the effected environment,
organisms, people and economies) and enforcement of the framework laid out by incident
command and OPA (so that accidents like the explosion of the well that caused the Deepwater
Horizon spill are prevented). Perhaps most importantly, the recurrence of massively devastating
spills exhibits the necessity for more attention and funding to be given to pursuit of alternate
forms of fuel. Overall, governments, the public, companies, and organizations must recognize
that an investment in the environment is an investment in us. The earth will be around long after
we are no longer and must sustain us while we and future generations are still here; it is in our
best interest to keep it healthy.

Works Cited

Argo Merchant. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2015, from

Cdr. Anthony C. Alejandro and Lt. Cdr. Jack L. Buri (1987) M/V ALVENUS: ANATOMY OF A
MAJOR OIL SPILL. International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings: April 1987, Vol.
1987, No. 1, pp. 27-32. Retrieved from

Exxon Valdez Spill Profile. (2015, April 14). Retrieved June 6, 2015, from

Farrington, J. W., Sanders, H. L., Teal, J. M., & Grassle, J. F. (January 01, 1977). The argo
merchant oil spill. Science (new York, N.y.), 195, 4282.)

International Energy Data and Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved June 5, 2015, from

Kurtz, R. S. (March 01, 2004). Coastal Oil Pollution: Spills, Crisis, and Policy Change. Review
of Policy Research, 21, 2, 201-219.

Merchant Marine Act of 1920, P.L. 66-261. Retrieved from

Pavia, R. (2015, April 7). Disaster Science: Interdisciplinary Exploration of Marine Oil
Spills, Class 3. Lecture conducted from University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Pratt, J. A. (July 01, 1980). Letting the Grandchildren Do It: Environmental Planning during
the Ascent of Oil as a Major Energy Source. The Public Historian, 2, 4, 28-61.

Ramseur, Jonathan L. (January 11, 2012). Oil Spills in U.S. Coastal Waters: Background and
Governance. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: