Overhauling the Oil Pollution Act

Strengthening the OPA

Since the creation of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act (OPA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress have introduced numerous proposals to strengthen the law to prevent catastrophic oil spills. Reincorporating the use of citizen oversight councils has resurfaced repeatedly within discussions related to overhauling the law. One of the original provisions of the OPA was to allow for the establishment of a series of citizen councils to advocate for the rights of local communities with regards to oil and gas drilling operations. However, after heavy lobbying by the oil and gas industry, this provision was left out of the federal law, except for Alaskan waters.

Pixabay jpenrose
Source: Pixabay, jpenrose

Safeguarding Natural Resources

In Alaska, citizen oversight councils made up of fishermen and other local communities members that could be catastrophically impacted by an oil spill are permitted to act as a third entity (in addition to federal oversight and the oil/gas industry) to safeguard natural resources and advocate for enhanced safety provisions (Block, 2010). The EPA has expressed that the expansion of a local stakeholder provision throughout the United States would heighten the accountability of the oil and gas industry and would support meaningful efforts to prevent future oil pollution incidents.

In addition to the incorporation of citizen oversight councils to monitor local waterways, further regulations have been discussed to specifically address oil and gas drilling operations, as well as the construction of oil pipelines. Since the OPA was originally established following the wreckage of the Exxon Valdez, the law mostly targets spills from tankers and other shipping vessels (Block, 2010). If the OPA were to more broadly target drilling operations in addition to the shipping of petroleum products, it is possible that a disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion could be prevented in the future. Furthermore, while the signing of the OPA helped to create the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, this organization has become vastly underfunded and understaffed to sufficiently regulate and monitor the construction of pipelines (Kaufhardt & Korte, 2017). As a result of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s lack of resources, this organization has become unable to effectively monitor many oil and gas pipeline projects. Instead, they have become reliant on the self-reporting of safety concerns, which is a disconcerting method to safeguard the environment.

Pixabay Skeeze
Source: Pixabay, Skeeze

Holding Polluters Accountable

While in recent years there have been calls to overhaul the OPA to strengthen its regulations, the OPA has still been shown as a successful approach to holding polluters accountable for their actions. In its current form, the OPA holds a tremendous amount of authority over corporations or parities that engage in unlawful pollution. In 2016, the international cruise line known as Princess Cruises was hit with the largest-ever criminal fine for deliberately dumping oil into the ocean from their vessels (Kaufhardt & Korte, 2017). Princess Cruises was charged with deliberate vessel pollution after it was found that they had circumvented oil disposal protocol by concealing it within grey water discharges into the ocean. Ultimately, this high-profile pollution case ended in monetary fines of $40 million and required robust pollution abatement practices. In total, 10 million dollars of monetary fines paid by Princess Cruises is broadly being dedicated to community service projects to benefit coastal and marine systems, one million dollars will be devoted to environmental projects off the coast of Florida and one million dollars will be reserved for projects that will benefit marine systems in United Kingdom waters (DOJ, 2016).

Pixabay Skeeze Ship
Source: Pixabay, Skeeze

Successful Prosecution

In the case against Princess Cruises, the OPA was instrumental in the successful prosecution of a corporate polluter. In addition to other legal structures such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, the power of the OPA should visibly dissuade corporations from polluting maritime environments (Kaufhardt & Korte, 2017). As the OPA approaches its 30th anniversary, it is clear that new protocols could be used to improve its effectiveness and ultimately prevent future oil- and gas-related pollution. However, in its current form, it is still a vital piece of legislation in the fight against fossil fuel pollution in maritime environments.


USCG. (2018). “Oil Pollution Act of 1990.” U.S. Coast Guard.

EPA. (2016). “Oil Pollution Act Overview.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Morgan, Jeffery. (2011). “The Oil Pollution Act of 1990.” Fordham University. Volume 6, Number 1, Article 5.

Block, Melissa. (2010). “A Look at the 1990 Oil Pollution Act.” National Public Radio.

Kaufhardt, Sara., & Korte, Brett. (2017). “The Evolution and Future of the Oil Pollution Act.” Environmental Law Institute.

DOJ. (2016). “Princess Cruise Lines to Pay Largest-Ever Criminal Penalty for Deliberate Vessel Pollution.” U.S. Department of Justice.

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