Cantwell Introduces Bill to Bring Oil Spill Response into 21st Century

Cantwell: ‘This bill will help protect our coastal economy from the threat of oil spills’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has introduced legislation to jumpstart research and development into new oil spill response technology, bringing oil spill response into the 21st century. Her bill – the Oil Spill Research and Technology Act of 2012 (S. 3298) – would create grants to support the research and development of new technologies to better contain and clean up all types of oil spills. In addition, the bill requires the United States Coast Guard to establish a program to evaluate and implement ‘best available technology’ to effectively respond to and clean up oil spills.

“Oil spills pose a great threat to Washington’s economy and the fragile coastlines we all cherish,” said Cantwell.“We must do everything we can to prevent a spill, but if one happens we need to have the best technology on hand to minimize the damage. It’s time to bring the technology we use to clean up oil spills into the 21st century. This bill will help protect our growing coastal economy from the threat of oil spills.”

Cantwell’s bill would reorganize and streamline the Federal Oil Spill Research Committee – something the Government Accountability Office recommended last year – made up of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of the Interior.

This committee would spearhead a comprehensive oil spill research and development program and distribute competitive grants to universities and other institutions to research new methods and technologies to clean up oil spills. Notably, the bill would require research into methods to clean up oil spills in icy conditions and into the unique properties of tar sands oil.

According to some reports, Canadian companies are poised to increase traffic of supertankers carrying tar sands oil through the waters around the San Juan Islands and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca by 300 percent. Oil from tar sands is uniquely difficult to remove after a spill, because it’s more corrosive than other types of oil and contains heavy metals. Tar sands oil also sinks, which renders ineffective conventional techniques to contain and remove oil from the water’s surface.

With new technology in place, cleaning up oil from incidents like the sinking of the vessel in Penn Cove could occur more quickly and effectively. Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources is currently tracking about 200 abandoned or derelict vessels in Puget Sound.

Cantwell’s bill would authorize the Coast Guard to thoroughly review and evaluate new oil spill response technology. The bill would also give the Coast Guard authority to review regional oil spill response plans every five years to ensure the best available technology is in place.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 demonstrated the chronic underinvestment in oil spill research and development. Currently, the industry lacks incentives and requirements to research, develop and adopt new cleanup technologies – even those that are proven effective. Among the new oil spill response technologies are oil solidifiers, blowout preventers, new techniques to break down spilled oil, fiber membranes to strain oil from water, and software to ensure equipment works properly during clean up.

According to a 2009 assessment of Washington state’s oil spill response capabilities by the state’s Oil Spill Advisory Council, spill response technologies in current operation could only capture, at most, 40 percent of spilled oil in the first 48 hours of a 50,000 barrel oil spill. Before its well was capped in July 2010, the Deepwater Horizon was spilling about 55,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico.

In November 2011, Cantwell secured Senate Commerce Committee approval of an amendment to the U.S. Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill (S. 1665) requiring the Coast Guard to complete an analysis and recommend methods for managing and minimizing the potential increases in supertanker, tanker and barge traffic exporting Canadian tar sands oil. Her amendment also required the study address cross-border spill response capability.

In October 2010, President Obama signed legislation Cantwell authored that required the Coast Guard to pursue enforcement of international oil pollution agreements covering the high seas. It also required the Coast Guard to address the risk of spills resulting from oil transfer operations and from human error, and establish a grant program to reduce smaller spills on recreational boats or fishing vessels.  

In July 2010, Cantwell chaired a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard about the lack of appropriate technology to respond to a major oil spill like Deepwater Horizon. At that hearing, Cantwell noted that spill response technologies have changed little between the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, a major spill would have a significant impact on Washington state’s coastal economy, which employs 165,000 people and generates $10.8 billion in annual economic activity. A spill would also severely hurt the state’s export dependent economy because international shipping would likely be severely restricted. Washington state’s waters support a huge variety of fish, shellfish, seabirds, marine mammals, and plants, including a number of Endangered Species Act-protected species such as Southern Resident orcas and Chinook salmon.