Oil and water: environmental policy and the Gulf oil spill
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On the morning of April 21, 2010, I awoke in my dorm room at Washington State University and flipped the TV on to CNN. I completed my morning ritual with the news playing in the background, brash headlines providing a dull white noise as I ate my cereal and checked my email. I soon realized, however, that something had happened—something that disrupted the normal cadence of daily life. I saw flames in the open water and Coast Guard response crews trying to put it out. I registered the fact that people had been hurt, and that the devastated oil well was leaking into the Gulf. But as soon as I turned the TV off, I proceeded with my day of work and classes, without giving a second thought to the morning’s breaking news. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, the Gulf Oil Spill would come to dominate the 24-hour news cycle. It would be branded as the worst technological disaster in U.S. history. As a student of Natural Resource Sciences, I found myself consumed by the events that unfolded during the summer of 2010, fascinated by the interplay between BP and the Obama Administration. This thesis builds on my early fascination, exploring how interest groups—particularly the oil lobby—and policymakers’ values influenced the short- and longer-term policy response to the Oil Spill by the federal government. Using an analytic perspective grounded in public policy theoretical frameworks, I evaluated the federal response in three categories: regulatory reform, compensation for human victims, and ecological restoration. My hypothesis was that though the Gulf Oil Spill focused the nation’s attention on the issue of oil regulation, pro-oil interest group pressure and neo-conservative values prevented it from serving as a window to new, authoritative, and comprehensive environmental policies. Over the course of my research, I discovered that decisive steps had been taken by the Obama Administration to rectify the damage wrought by the Oil Spill through reform of 3 regulatory rules and reorganization of the Minerals Management Service, the agency which had been responsible for oversight over oil development and production. Early on in the response process, the judicial system became the dominant venue for human compensation, while the administrative mechanisms triggered by implementation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 took on the task of ecological restoration. However, Congress has not independently passed any singular statute which unifies these disparate aspects of the response effort under a single “Oil Spill Bill.” Despite the fact that over 150 stand-alone bills related to the Gulf Oil Spill have been introduced in either the House or Senate, not one has graced the desk of the President. While some of this inaction can be attributed to the overall partisan gridlock that has characterized legislative policymaking over the past decade, at the heart of the matter is the fact that members of Congress are faced with the challenge of wrestling with a fierce contest in values surrounding environmental policy. While the Gulf Oil Spill has been likened to such technological disasters as the Exxon Valdez and Santa Barbara oil spills, I contend that in the realm of environmental policymaking it stands apart. While the latter two incidents inspired Congress and other official policy actors to pass hard-hitting legislation and rules, becoming symbolic moments in the history of American environmental politics, the Gulf Oil Spill has not—at least, not yet. As the ongoing drama in the federal courts between BP and the Deepwater Horizon claimants plays out, it will be interesting to see whether the rulings impart a lasting stamp on the nation’s approach to energy development and environmental protection. This thesis should thus be read as a work-in-progress—a snapshot of a political process that will play out well into the next decade. As time progresses, I believe that the Oil Spill will prove a fascinating and unique subject of study to students of environmental policy.