U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In response to the widespread attention to the problem of oil pollution caused by the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, the U.S. Congress passed comprehensive environmental legislation in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Summary of Event

Congress turned its attention to legislation regulating oil spills following the grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The oil spill and accompanying damage to the wildlife and its ecosystem were the subject of broadcast news for weeks following the accident and rallied public pressure for action. Oil Pollution Act (1990) Pollution;legislation Water;pollution Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution [kw]U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation (Aug. 18, 1990) [kw]Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation, U.S. (Aug. 18, 1990) [kw]Oil Spill Legislation, U.S. Congress Passes (Aug. 18, 1990) [kw]Spill Legislation, U.S. Congress Passes Oil (Aug. 18, 1990) [kw]Legislation, U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill (Aug. 18, 1990) Oil spills;legislation Oil Pollution Act (1990) Pollution;legislation Water;pollution Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution [g]North America;Aug. 18, 1990: U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation[07870] [g]United States;Aug. 18, 1990: U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation[07870] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 18, 1990: U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation[07870] [c]Environmental issues;Aug. 18, 1990: U.S. Congress Passes Oil Spill Legislation[07870] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy Jones, Walter Rostenkowski, Dan Hollings, Fritz

To be effective, oil spill legislation had to be at the federal level, because state and local governments could legislate only those terminals and facilities within their jurisdictions. Comprehensive federal legislation had to address not only pollution cleanup problems but also the entire transport system. A number of laws already existed that addressed some of the problems. The earliest of these, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1970, Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1970) concerned oil spilled into the navigable waters of the United States. The Deepwater Ports Act of 1974 Deepwater Ports Act (1974) covered spillage in the territorial sea, which extends twelve miles from the U.S. coasts, and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (1978) of 1978 covered oil spilled into the waters of the U.S. exclusive economic zone. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) which created the first “superfund.” Superfund (1980) The fund was designed to provide the resources needed to clean up an oil spill if a cargo or ship owner was unwilling or unable to pay for it.

The Oil Pollution Act addressed not only the prevention of oil pollution but also oil-pollution response and cleanup. It set standards for crew certification, work hours, and vessel traffic systems. Further, the legislation set new design and life-span requirements for tank vessels and addressed the question of liability for the cleanup of spills and accidents involving tank vessels. Finally, the bill continued provisions for the superfund established by the 1980 act.

The bill had eight sections, each of which added something to the existing body of law. In the first two, Congress significantly increased the liability of the “polluter” and added third-party liability, as well as addressing the new law’s relationship with already existing regulations and allowing states to override the federal standards with stricter legislation of their own. The third section addressed the international aspects covered by the act, and the fourth set higher standards for the industry. Issues specifically related to the Prince William Sound situation were covered in the fifth section, in which provisions were made for a technical committee, better oversight of the tanker terminal, and modifications to the navigation aids in that area. The act went on to address miscellaneous issues such as administrative appropriations and a ban on drilling off the North Carolina coast; oil-pollution research and development programs, which included recommendations for the types of equipment required to track and contain oil spills; and liability and pollution issues associated with oil transported by pipeline.


The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was a far-reaching piece of legislation. Almost immediately, the act had a dramatic impact, not only on the operation of tanker fleets in the United States but also on the operation of international tanker fleets that called at American ports. The act mandated new standards that required both short-term and long-term adaptation on the part of the maritime industry. Exxon Valdez (ship) Oil spills;legislation

The legislation also had a significant impact on the government because it required that a number of agencies, including the Department of Energy, institute the new policies and programs and cooperate in implementing the stricter standards. The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard for example, was made responsible for issues such as crew licensing, vessel inspection, and plans to deal with oil spills and oil transfers.

The act also generated the need for new agencies, such as the Marine Spill Response Corporation, Marine Spill Response Corporation to support oil spill recovery procedures. Vessels specially designed, equipped, and staffed to handle oil spills were stationed around the country, their crews permanently on call to respond to emergencies.

The act affected owners and operators of U.S.-flag tank vessels as well as their crews, who were subject to a new set of certification and licensing standards. The Coast Guard began checking the driving records of all applicants, and periodic renewal became mandatory for a number of endorsements, or jobs, for which crew members were certified. Daily ship operations were also affected by the legislation. To cut down on shipboard fatigue, which often underlies human error, the act limited work hours to no more than twelve per day. That in turn usually required vessels, in order to operate competitively, to hire additional crew.

The act also addressed the issue of vessel obsolescence by requiring that all vessels calling in U.S. ports be double-hulled by the year 2015. Shipyards and ship repair facilities worldwide had to develop plans to meet the new construction standard. Ship terminals, too, were affected by the legislation, which required that they develop and maintain oil spill contingency plans and provide terminal operations manuals to shipboard and shoreside personnel during oil transfers. The law has also had an effect on nonmaritime businesses such as banking and insurance: The act called for minimum insurance coverage and strengthened the government’s power to enforce oil-pollution liability. Oil spills;legislation Oil Pollution Act (1990) Pollution;legislation Water;pollution Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alaska Oil Spill Commission. Spill: Wreck of the Exxon Valdez. Juneau: Author, 1990. Report by a government-appointed state committee discusses in detail the spill as well as the resulting cleanup attempts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Research Council, Marine Board, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems. Using Oil Spill Dispersants on the Sea. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989. Presents extensive information on the controversial subject of oil dispersants in a fairly readable format. Technical text is supplemented with pictures and graphs, and conclusions are clearly presented.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Zachary A. The Environmental Paradox. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003. Provides clear discussion of a complex subject, with examination of both business and environmentalist perspectives concerning petroleum products. Addresses society’s reliance on those products and the problems that reliance has created.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tan, Alan Khee-Jin. Vessel-Source Marine Pollution: The Law and Politics of International Regulation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Examines the history of international oil-pollution regulation and discusses how political, economic, and social forces affect antipollution treaties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wardley-Smith, J., ed. The Control of Oil Pollution. London: Graham & Trotman, 1983. Collection of essays presents detailed discussion of shipping methods for transportation, loading, and unloading of oil as well as discussion of the environmental effects of oil pollution on birds, fisheries, and plankton. Good resource for the general reader.

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Categories: History