Breath of Clarity

Discussion Comment: Groundwater Contamination and Oil Spills

Original Post by Dan O’Connell:

Hi Mary,

Great post and article. I agree with your closing statements; just like with Superfund, I think more federal support will definitely improve responses and reporting. I think the federal government can start with an overhaul of the Oil Pollution Act. Notice how that article referenced the 1967 oil spill off the coast of England that caused major environmental damage and is what prompted the U.S. to develop a strategy to prevent these disasters. It only took 23 years to establish the Oil Pollution Act!

Unlike some of my other posts, I’m not questioning the federal government’s efficiencies (though 23 years is a long time), instead, I’m questioning why the federal government has not updated this law. If it was truly developed based on the 1967 accident (pre-EPA), and is being relied upon and followed today, no doubt there loop holes. Surely our technologies are better than they were in the 1960’s, even the 1990’s.

The article does mention some reforms, but with little affect. I like how you stated that the federal government may be incentivizing continuous environmental damage and under equipping the entities who can mitigating it. It sounds a lot like Superfund. To me it seems like the federal government is “influenced” to continue environmental damage, not just incentivizing it. The same article references the Obama Administration opening up millions of acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development; the Trump administration wasn’t the only one. My guess is that all administrations had done the same. Would you agree that government is influenced by the oil companies and that is why we are seeing the incentives? If so, do you think regulation will work, or will it take something such as a shift from a fossil fuel economy to one that’s more balanced with renewables?

Meiners, Joan. 2019. “How Oil Companies Avoided Environmental Accountability After 10.8 Million Gallons Spilled” ProPublica. Accessed May 1, 2020.


Hi Dan,

I would agree the government is influenced by the oil companies as Super PACS and lobbying operations impact policy formation. Indeed, the oil and gas sector’s impact on government was still strong before Trump was president. In 2014, the industry spent over $141 million and employed over 800 lobbyists in Congress alone. In 2016, a study concluded every $1 the industry spends on campaign donations and lobbying staff returns $100 back in subsidies (Clean Water Fund 2016). The evident input/output, cause and effect relationship is definitely a simple incentive for the oil and gas industry to continue its actions.

The influence is not restricted to the federal government as the oil and gas industry spends money to control state bills, as well. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was part of a subtle strategy from the oil and gas industry to influence policy by insisting that regulation at the state level is the best way to oversee the industry. The companies took this approach because the political mechanisms to regulate the industry at the state level are more vulnerable to the influence of money (Clean Water Fund 2016). So, it is the oil and gas industry’s intent to make it so the entities mitigating environmental damage are redirected.

In addition to interfering with legislation, oil and gas interests also push elected officials to reduce oversight budgets at the EPA, as well as other federal and state agencies. As a result, inspections decrease because existing protections are not enforced (Clean Water Fund 2016). However, with money set aside in the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to reimburse the oil and gas companies for the Louisiana spills, cleanups bring no net financial penalty to the industry. While it is useful to update the Oil Pollution Act because we have better technologies now than we did years ago, the federal government completing the Louisiana oil spills damage assessments should not require a policy update. In the article from my original post, Meiners notes some of the same oil companies have been held responsible at other locations, incurred removal costs and submitted a claim. So, I wonder why it wasn’t addressed at this location. As I mentioned in this week’s post, the public only learns of the spill at the final stage when a plan to restore the area is complete. Perhaps, it’s easier to open the Gulf for industry development and offer reduced royalty rates if spills are hidden from the public. If the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office is able to move a case to a cold-case file like a police department would when they can’t solve it, then maybe it isn’t as heavily considered in a conversation about the area’s land rights. Insofar as my presumption is true, since the Gulf is an area of enormous potential for the oil and gas industry, the spills at this specific location were ignored.

If compliance management threatens the oil and gas industry’s land rights, I don’t think regulation will work because it can reach the point where any sort of penalty inflicted onto the company puts its production at risk and instigates a need to strengthen control over the government. Even though the Oil Pollution Act is a great example of why we need to design policy that reimburses companies for cleanups, with a recent decline in the EPA budget, reimbursing responsible parties for cleanups is not a smart plan to rely on in the long-term. Further, as quality compliance management seems to be restricted to certain locations, it’s evident the oil and gas industry has mastered being able to control the law so that its damages cannot even be moderately mitigated.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC overturned campaign finance restrictions. So now, corporations can continue influencing politics with money. Since it’s the root of the problem, it would be very challenging for regulation to work. Gas prices would need to drop low enough for the companies to no longer be able to afford contributing to politics. Clearly, the government is the oil and gas industry’s subject rather than its competitor. Something else would need to have more money to more strongly influence the government and be cheaper for the public. So, with that being said, a shift from a fossil fuel economy to one that’s more balanced with renewables would be necessary.

Clean Water Fund. 2016. “The Chilling Effect of Oil & Gas Money On Democracy: Environmental Policy and Oversight Influenced by Polluter Interests”. Accessed May 3, 2020.