What Is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990?

The U.S. Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) to streamline and strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) power to prevent oil spills. It was passed as an amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1972 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 is one of the most wide-reaching and critical pieces of environmental legislation ever passed.

Key Takeaways

  • The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 expanded the power of federal agencies to prevent and punish mass oil spills.
  • It was passed by the U.S. Congress in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 as an amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1972.
  • The goal of the OPA was to design and establish a comprehensive federal framework that would prevent future oil spills and develop cleanup procedures in the case of a spill-related emergency.
  • The OPA is primarily enforced and administered by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Before the passing of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the U.S. was poorly placed in dealing with oil spills in terms of federal funding to respond to them as well as having a narrow scope of damages in regards to compensation to those affected. The OPA remedied these shortcomings.

Understanding the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

The Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24, 1989, resulted in 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil being spilled into the waters of Prince William Sound. The oil spill was the worst in the U.S. until it was eclipsed by the larger Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill affected 1,300 miles of coastline and hundreds and thousands of animals. Today, pockets of oil can still be found in the area. It also shed light on the fact that the U.S. was severely limited in its ability to react to oil spills, both in terms of having adequate resources, primarily federal funds, to respond to such spills, and that the scope of damages compensable to those impacted was very narrow. The Oil Pollution Act was created to remedy these shortcomings.

The Oil Pollution Act was designed to establish a comprehensive federal framework that would prevent future spills and develop cleanup procedures in the case of a spill-related emergency. Primary enforcement and administration of the act are by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Before passage of the OPA, federal pollution legislation had been an ineffective web of weak enforcement and insufficient liability for polluters. The OPA sought to solve this problem by establishing stricter standards for the maritime transportation of oil, which included the following:

  • New requirements for construction of vessels and training of personnel.
  • Contingency planning requirements.
  • Enhanced federal response capability.
  • Broadened enforcement authority.
  • Increased penalties for polluters.
  • Further research and development programs for cleanup and storage technology.
  • Increased potential liabilities.
  • Increased financial responsibility requirements.

The OPA greatly increased the government's oversight of maritime oil transportation and created a detailed "prevention, response, liability, and compensation regime to deal with vessel- and facility-caused oil pollution to U.S. navigable waters."

Liability Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

A primary emphasis of the OPA is the liability, financial and otherwise, which the act imposes on any party found to be responsible for a destructive oil spill. Any firm identified as a responsible party is subject to virtually unlimited cleanup costs.

However, any claimant seeking reimbursement for cleanup costs must first request it directly from the guilty party. If the responsible party refuses, a claimant can then take legal action against the firm or seek it directly from a federally established Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. 

The OPA has also authorized the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) up to $1 billion to pay for quick oil removal and uncompensated damages for each oil spill.

The establishment of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) came in 1986, before the Valdez incident. It was established to finance clean-up efforts and damage assessments and to cover unmet private liability on the part of a responsible party. Funding for the trust is by a tax, on both domestic production and imports, of petroleum products.