Explain the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, including why it was enacted, its general provisions, and OPA 90's effectiveness in terms of containing a major spill.
Why did it take BP so long to stop the spill?
The Oil Pollution Act was enacted in 1990 in response to the Exxon-Valdez oil spill as it was felt that better coordinated efforts could have minimized the damage and also minimized the civil liability of any future spills. Some of the key provisions of the act include
- Agency responsibility for the coordination of spill cleanup efforts; the Coast Guard is responsible for coordinating off-shore cleanup, while the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for on-shore efforts.
- Better preparedness for spill prevention and control by better planning.
- Liability: The owner will be liable for all the clean-up costs. A third party, if proved responsible, will be liable for all the costs of clean-up activities.
- Liability limit: up to $350 million in liability may be charged to the responsible party. This limit can be adjusted by the government.
- The prohibition of any vessel that has caused a spill of more than 1 million gallons in any marine area from operating in Prince William Sound.
- The banning of single hull tankers of more than 5000 ton capacities.
In general, the act is capable of preventing a number of smaller spills. An example is the effectiveness of double-hull tankers: they are 4-6 times less likely to spill oil in case of grounding or collision, also the flow rate is 4-6 times less as compared to single-hull tankers.
However, it could not contain the largest marine oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Remember that the act is more for controlling spills than blowout and hence its applicability in this case is questionable and so is the $350 million dollar damage limit.
It took BP 87 days to cap the well and several more months to seal the well. It took BP so long because of technical difficulties and inaccurate estimations of the oil spill. BP first tried to use robots (remotely operated underwater vehicles) to close blowout preventer valves, but it didn't work. Next came a 125 ton containment dome, which did not work in deep water and methane hydrate crystals blocked the dome opening. Similarly, heavy drilling fluids and cement failed to stem the oil discharge. A combination of relief wells, insertion tubes (with controlled combustion of gas), mud, cement and cap helped seal the well. BP also inaccurately estimated the spill to be about 5,000 barrels per day against a government estimate of 62,000 barrels a day. All this led to delays in the effective sealing of the well.