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The writer aims at providing information about the US Maritime Policy, the maritime commerce, pollution in US waters and the effects of the policy before, and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 that led to the introduction of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Emphasis is also given to the tanker accidents and the rules enacted due to such accidents. US maritime policy is primarily a plan of action adopted by federal administration to regulate activities related to the U.S. navigable waters. This policy seeks to have a modern, privately owned, merchant marine sufficient to carry a substantial portion of the waterborne export and import foreign commerce of the United States and capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency. The impacts of an oil spill depend on the size of the spill, the rate of the spill, the type of oil spilled, and the location of the spill. Depending on timing and location, even a relatively minor spill can cause significant harm to individual organisms and entire populations.

Oil spills can cause impacts over a range of time scales, from days to years, or even decades for certain spills. The Exxon Valdez spill highlighted the need for stronger legislation, inflamed public sentiment, and spurred Congress to enact comprehensive oil spill legislation, resulting in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-380). This law expanded and clarified the authority of the federal government and created new oil spill prevention and preparedness requirements. Moreover, the 1990 legislation strengthened existing liability provisions, providing a greater deterrent against spills. Based on the findings of this paper, the Deep-water Horizon spill generated significant interest in various oil spill policy matters, including prevention, preparedness, response, and liability and compensation.

Literature Review

The governing framework for oil spills in the United States remains a combination of federal, state, and international authorities. Within this framework, several federal agencies have the authority to implement oil spill regulations. Agency responsibilities can be divided into two categories, that is, oil spill response and cleanup and oil spill prevention or preparedness. Oil spill response authority is determined by the location of the spill: the U.S. Coast Guard has response authority in the U.S. coastal zone, and the Environmental Protection Agency covers the inland zone. Jurisdiction over oil spill prevention and preparedness duties is determined by the potential sources of oil spills.

Before the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989, there existed federal authorities that were in effect which includes first, the Clean Water Act (1972) that represented the broadest authority for addressing oil spills at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill (Bryan 2004). Section 311 of the Clean Water Act established requirements for oil spill reporting, response, and liability. The act also created a fund (311 Fund), maintained by federal appropriations, that could be used for cleanup and natural resource restoration. Second, Deep-water Port Act (1974) addressed oil spills and liability issues at deep-water oil ports. The act also set up the Deep-water Port Fund to provide for prompt cleanup and to compensate damages above liability limits.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, many observers described the above legal collection as an ineffective patchwork. Arguably, each law had perceived shortcomings and none provided comprehensive oil spill coverage. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, Members of Congress faced great pressure to overcome the disputes discussed above. The spill highlighted the inadequacies of the existing coverage and generated public outrage resulted to the enactment of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), the first comprehensive law to specifically address oil pollution to waterways and coastlines of the United States Oil (Pollution Act of 1990 ). The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 amended the Clean Water Act and addressed the wide range of problems associated with preventing, responding to, and paying for oil pollution incidents in navigable waters of the United States. It created a comprehensive prevention, response, liability, and compensation regime to deal with vessel- and facility-caused oil pollution to U.S. navigable waters.

OPA greatly increased federal oversight of maritime oil transportation, while providing greater environmental safeguards by: setting new requirements for vessel construction and crew licensing and manning, mandating contingency planning, enhancing federal response capability, broadening enforcement authority, increasing penalties, creating new research and development programs, increasing potential liabilities, and significantly, broadening financial responsibility requirements. The 1990 law therefore expanded the existing liability provisions within the Clean Water Act and created new free-standing requirements regarding oil spill prevention and response.

The Operating Differential Subsidy (ODS) and the Construction Differential Subsidy (CDS) were designed to pay American ship operators the difference between American and foreign costs. With the increased carriage of large volumes of hazardous cargos (crude oil and petroleum products, other chemicals) by ships in the course of the 20th century, and especially in the wake of several tanker accidents resulting in large oil spills, attention focused increasingly on the environmental effects of shipping. The response so far has concentrated on the operational and accidental discharge of oil into the sea. Most notably, national and international regulations (the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 in the U.S. IMO MARPOL 1992 Amendments, Reg. 13F and G) are now forcing conversion of the world’s tanker fleet to double hulls.

Earlier, MARPOL 1978 required segregated ballast tanks on tankers to avoid the discharge of oil residue following the use of cargo tanks to hold ballast water. The Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million US gallons (41,000 m3) of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound (Bryan 2004).  Oil spills have devastating effects on the environment where crude oil contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are very difficult to clean up, and last for years in the sediment and marine environment. Marine species constantly exposed to PAHs can exhibit developmental problems, susceptibility to disease, and abnormal reproductive cycles. By the sheer amount of oil carried, modern oil tankers must be considered a threat to the environment. A VLCC tanker can carry 2 million barrels (320,000 m3) of crude oil which is about eight times the amount spilled in the widely known Exxon Valdez incident. In this spill, the ship ran aground and dumped 10,800,000 US gallons (41,000 m3) of oil into the ocean in March 1989.

Despite efforts of scientists, managers, and volunteers over 400,000 seabirds, about 1,000 sea otters, and immense numbers of fish were killed. Considering the volume of oil carried by sea, however, tanker owners' organizations often argue that the industry's safety record is excellent, with only a tiny fraction of a percentage of oil cargoes carried ever being spilled. The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners has observed that accidental oil spills recently have been at record low levels at a time when oil transported has more than doubled since the mid-1980s." Oil tankers are only one source of oil spills. According to the United States Coast Guard, 35.7% of the volume of oil spilled in the United States from 1991 to 2004 came from tank vessels (ships/barges), 27.6% from facilities and other non-vessels, 19.9% from non-tank vessels, and 9.3% from pipelines; 7.4% from mystery spills.

On the other hand, only 5% of the actual spills came from oil tankers, while 51.8% came from other kinds of vessels. This shows that tank vessels are responsible for somewhat less than 5% of the number of total spills but more than 60% of the volume. Spills from oil tankers, release oil on a less frequent basis but have the potential to release a significant volume in one incident. These variances in frequency and volume of oil releases create different environmental impacts as well as different challenges for responders and policymakers. In summary, spills are rarer but much more serious on tank vessels than on non-tank vessels. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has therefore tracked 9,351 accidental spills that have occurred since 1974 and according to this study, most spills result from routine operations such as loading cargo, discharging cargo, and taking on fuel oil. 91% of the operational oil spills are small, resulting in less than 7 metric tons per spill.

Following the Exxon Valdez spill, the United States passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90), which included a stipulation that all tankers entering its waters be double-hulled by 2015. Following the sinking of the Erika (1999) and Prestige (2002), the European Union passed its own stringent anti-pollution packages (known as Erika I, II, and III), which also require all tankers entering its waters to be double-hulled by 2010. The following are some of the vital cases of tanker accidents that cost lives and financial losses. I the year 1989 March 24Th, Prince William Sound, Alaska: tanker Exxon Valdez hit an undersea reef and spilled 10 million–plus gallons of oil into the water, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

In the Odyssey accident of November 1988, the American-owned oil tanker Odyssey split in two 700 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. The tanker spewed about 132,000 tons of crude oil into the sea and caught fire as it sank, setting the spill aflame. Because of hazardous weather conditions, the Canadian Coast Guard could not immediately reach the spill, and much of the oil burned. In July 1979, a Greek oil tanker called the Atlantic Empress collided with another ship, the Aegean Captain, during a tropical storm off of the island of Tobago in the Caribbean Sea. The Atlantic Empress disaster killed 26 crew members and is the largest ship-based oil spill. In June 19, Calcasieu River, Louisiana, an estimated 71,000 barrels of waste oil was released from a tank at the CITGO Refinery on the Calcasieu River during a violent rain storm. The other one include the accident on July 25, New Orleans, Louisiana, where a 61-foot barge, carrying 419,000 gallons of heavy fuel, collided with a 600-foot tanker ship in the Mississippi River near New Orleans that lead to hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel leak from the barge causing a halt to all river traffic while cleanup efforts commenced to limit the environmental fallout on local wildlife.

On January 23, 2010 at Port Arthur in Texas, the oil tanker Eagle Otome and a barge collided in the Sabine-Neches Waterway, causing the release of about 462,000 gallons of crude oil. Environmental damage was minimal as about 46,000 gallons were recovered and 175,000 gallons were dispersed or rather evaporated, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Also in November 28Th in the 2000 in the Mississippi River south of New Orleans, an oil tanker Westchester lost power and ran aground near Port Sulphur, dumping 567,000 gallons of crude oil into lower Mississippi.


The researcher used qualitative study methodology to accomplish the study objectives identified herein, as well as to find resolutions and recommendations to the issues contained in the problem statement.  Accordingly, the researcher used various scholarly journals and books, and newsworthy articles and reports. The researcher also used semi-structured interviews to collect information from the people that might have witnessed and of the accidents mentioned in this study. Finally the researcher coded and analyzed the collected information to make the following summaries, conclusions, and recommendations.

Summary and Recommendations

The 1990 law established a multi-layered planning and response system to improve preparedness and response to spills in marine environments. The OPA amended the CWA to require that U.S. tank vessel, offshore facilities, and certain onshore facilities to prepare and submit oil spill response plans to the relevant federal agency. The plans should, among other things, identify how the owner or operator of a vessel or facility would respond to a worst-case scenario spill. Thus, the 2004 amendment brought the U.S. law more in line with international provisions. The OPA came up with an act that required new vessels carrying oil and operating in U.S. waters to have double hulls. In addition to cleanup costs, OPA significantly increased the range of liable damages to include, injury to natural resources, loss of personal property, loss of subsistence use of natural resources, lost revenues resulting from destruction of property or natural resource injury, lost profits and earning capacity resulting from property injury or natural resource injury, and costs of providing extra public services during or after spill response. In contrast to tank vessel liability limits, these liability limits are at the same level as they were in 1990.

Although OPA is the primary domestic legislation for oil spills, other federal laws contain provisions that relate to oil spills. Many of these provisions in addition, contain various penalty provisions for noncompliance, including violations of the discharge prohibition of Section 311(b). Therefore, OPA requires agencies to conduct internal examinations to test preparedness and as part of this requirement, the Coast Guard conducts Spills of National Significance exercises to analyze the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to a major oil spill. As with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the 2010 Deep-water Horizon spill generated significant interest in various oil spill policy matters, including prevention, preparedness, response, and liability and compensation.

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