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It is a well documented fact that oil spills can create lasting damage to the oceans, sometimes leading to irrecoverable losses to marine ecosystems and inhabiting species. In the Exxon Valdez spill that took place two decades back, 258,000 barrels of oil were spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Although only a fifth of the total supertanker got spilled, its impact was devastating. In light of this and similar events, governments across the world have created legislations and regulations to mitigate risk. One such crucial legislation in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster was the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA ’90), which imposed unlimited liability on proprietors and operators of ships and shore facilities who discharge oil into surrounding waters. This Act met with much criticism, especially from energy company lobbyists, for it contained strict rules and regulations that had the potential to alter international oil trade. For example, the cost of compliance with OPA ’90 was said to be “$1.3 billion over the next 24 years, but some say the figure will be closer to $7 million by 2015.” (Oshins, 1992, p.54) This is an important statistic in the context of this essay, for it indicates the real reason behind continued instances of oil spills – namely, cost of compliance. Although the OPA ’90 was supposed to deter sub-standard safety measures, it has not fulfilled that end. This is in part due to the perceived excesses in some of its clauses. There is validity to those claims which portray OPA ’90 in negative light, attacking it for the severity of punitive measures it encompasses. For example, under the OPA ’90, “in addition to removal costs, the responsible party becomes liable for consequential damages: harm to natural resources, economic loss to real or personal property, losses suffered by one who earns subsistence from natural resources, losses in tax revenues, loss to profit or earning capacity, and increased expense of public services.” (Oshins, 1992, p.54)

Hence, a major drawback of the legislation is its underlying assumption that exorbitant financial compensation after the event will somewhat prompt oil companies to tighten up their transportation procedures. But this assumption has proven weak. For example, although there are some efforts by major oil companies toward making their oceanic oil transport as risk-free as possible, the frequency of spills has not reduced. The recent British Petroleum disaster is another example of the systemic failure of oil industry and government agencies. The recent BP disaster is as much a result of human failures as it is due to technical shortcomings and inadequate planning. Even as investigations were started and all pretense of earnestness were shown by politicians, the most important reason has been ignored – namely, that deep sea drilling is inherently risky and continued use of fossil fuels are already affecting marine ecosystems through climate change. Another factor that amplifies risk of oil-spill is the generation of hydrate gas. Under a depth of 1000 feet or more beneath the sea-level hydrate gases such as methane are found in a solid state, compressed into “molecular cages of ice”. (Allen, 2010, p.12) But if they happen to get destabilized due to a reduction in pressure or rise in temperature, the “gas-water compound can quickly expand 164 times in volume. If ignited, even ice-bound hydrates burn. This could potentially block the [blowout preventer] stack, kill lines and chokes, obstruct the movement of the drill string, and cause serious operational and safety concerns including blowouts” (Allen, 2010, p.12)

In the last thirty years, 165 blowouts were witnessed in U.S. marine zones and 500 worldwide. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is the chief government agency looking into the problem, has not taken adequate steps to mitigate this risk. Even in the BP case, the MMS was suspected of colluding with the business corporation:

“If BP cut the corners, MMS handed it a chainsaw. Capping a long- corrupted relationship with the oil and gas industry it is supposed to regulate, MMS signed off on continuing the well-capping operation after BP managed to produce successful results by dropping the pressure at which it was testing the blowout preventer from the usual 10,000 pounds per square to 6,500. Despite BPs rank by Public Citizen as having “the worst safety and environmental record of any oil company operating in America” (in a field rife with accident-prone corporations), MMS trusted the company to do the right thing.” (Allen, 2010, p.12)

Although the British Petroleum disaster is the most recent, older oil spills are more useful for the purposes of this essay, for more research and statistics pertaining to these events are available now. Take, say, the oil spill that occurred off the Malaysian Island of Langkawi in 1992 (The Nagasaki Spirit oil spill). The Strait of Malacca in Malaysia is the nerve centre for South East Asia/Asia Pacific regions. (Dow, 1999, p.74) Since it is the busiest shipping lane in the world, it poses the challenge of navigability, making oil tankers prone to collision or mishaps. But government authorities have put in place a comprehensive marine transportation safety plan. Contingency plans for oil-spills in the form of response plans are also put in place. Special attention is given to the route taken by tankers in transit from Middle East. Identifying the need for protecting coastal human inhabitants (especially fisher-folk), efforts has been made to alleviate hazard to this group in the event of an oil-spill. The small-scale fisher-folk who live along the coast-line, are one high-risk group, for they “depend on coastal and fishery resources that are at risk. Assessment of social risk, or vulnerability, is based heavily on understanding the source of the fishers’ exposure: their dependence on vulnerable resources. Any such assessment, though, pays little attention to factors that shape the coping capabilities in fishers’ communities and households, strategies that can influence the scale of losses.” (Dow, 1999, p.74)

Hence, one could see both successes and failures in the Malaysian government’s preparedness for oil-spill. In the area of covering all bases in protecting human population living in coastal areas, the plans were not well thought out. Coming back to the OPA ’90, the stringent provisions and punitive measures under the Act have shown promise. (Richman, 2010, p.2) The Kodiak Island Borough v. Exxon Corp. case, which is considered a landmark in American legal history, is a case in point. The Supreme Court in 1999 considered state and federal statutory law against the common law of admiralty to come to the conclusion that Alaska municipalities could continue a claim against Exxon “for the cost of services diverted from their citizens in order to participate in the environmental cleanup effort necessitated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill….Recent changes resulting from oil pollution legislation constitute a logical step in the evolution of admiralty jurisdiction and are appropriate for an age in which society is recognizing its fragility and the complexity of its dependence on the natural environment.” (Weller, 2002, p.71)

Hence, we see the OPA ’90 bearing fruit in giving the general public some sort of protection. The implementation of the OPA was not a straight-forward affair, though, for many of its provisions were in conflict with state, federal or admiralty jurisdictions. At the crux of the debate over environment protection laws such as this is a perceived injustice. The question is: Why should the environment and innocent human inhabitants share the consequences of a hazard created by profit-oriented private companies. Moreover, those who are at high-risk for getting affected by oil spills are those who are least related to the private enterprise. In light of this unfairness, the Supreme Court rightly observed that oil spills are a great cause of concern to all coastal city or township. Its effect on the estuaries and the marine life is also acknowledged. The Supreme Court went on to note that

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