WHAT IS 'Oil Pollution Act Of 1990'

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed by the U.S. Congress in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. It is one of the most wide-reaching and exacting pieces of environmental legislation ever passed.

BREAKING DOWN 'Oil Pollution Act Of 1990'

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or OPA, was passed by the the U.S. Congress as an amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1972 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. It was designed to establish a comprehensive federal framework which would prevent future spills and establish cleanup procedures in the case of spill-related emergencies. It is largely enforced and administered by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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

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

Liability under the OPA

A major 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. Any claimant seeking reimbursement for cleanup costs must first seek it directly from the responsible party. If the responsible party refuses, a claimant can take legal action against the firm or seek it directly from a federally-established Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund had been established in 1986, prior to the Valdez incident.

The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund was funded by a tax on both domestic production and imports of petroleum products into the United States. It was established to finance clean-up efforts and damage assessments, and to cover unmet private liability on the part of a responsible party.

Since the enactment of the OPA, oil spills have declined in frequency and severity across the United States. This can be credited to the Act’s requirement of improved storage and transportation technologies, along with the threat of financial consequences for any responsible party. The OPA has been the target of numerous legal challenges from the oil industry since its passage, but has largely survived intact. It has played an important role in the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, and has been under a new set of strains as the U.S. has become a net exporter of oil in recent years.

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