Environmental Laws and Oil Spills

The legal landscape is a very different place for victims of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill than it was for the victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. The Exxon Valdez accident which, at least until now, has often been regarded as the worst oil spill in American history encouraged the United States government to make significant legal changes to help victims of future oil spills.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990
Just one year after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, the United State Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to deal with future oil spill accidents. Specifically, the law was enacted to impose penalties, to prevent future oil spills and to aid in the clean up if an oil spill should occur. Some of the highlights of the law include:
  • Funding the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.   While the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund was actually established in 1986, three years before the Valdez accident, it was not funded prior to the Valdez tragedy. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 allowed the funds in the trust fund to be raised to $2.7 billion dollars. The amount that can be used on any one accident is currently $1 billion.
  • Required Companies to Create Spill Scenario Plans Before Drilling for Oil. These plans must be created for the worst case scenario and include specific training of the people responsible for implementing the plan and testing of the equipment that would be used. The plans must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agenc, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • New Tankers Must be Built With Double Hulls. This provides an extra layer of protection in a crash. Single hull tankers are scheduled to be phased out by 2010.
  • Responsibility for the Oil Spiller was Extended. The responsibility now includes all costs incurred not only by the federal government but also by local and state governments that incur cleanup costs related to the spill.
  • Federal Trustees are Charged with Assessing Damages to Natural Resources. This includes not only water but also wildlife and other natural resources.
  • Formulation of Area Contingency Plans. This is required only for certain high risk areas.
  • Enhanced Penalties for Oil Spillers. Penalties are designed not only to punish the company responsible for the spill but also to deter others from risky behavior that could result in a dangerous and disruptive oil spill that harms the environment and the economic interests of many people and businesses.
States Laws Not Affected
Many times when a federal law is passed, it is preempts or prohibits state action on the same case. However, the Oil Pollution Act expressly allows states to maintain their own laws regarding oil spill claims and clean ups.
Thus, if you have been the victim of an oil spill then you may have the right to recover damages both under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and pursuant to state laws in the jurisdiction where the accident occurred.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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