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Legal Issues

As the daily news recognizes, the main legal issue regarding the oil spill is BP's — and perhaps other parties' — liability for the cleanup and any resulting damages. The main federal statute governing liability for oil spills in water is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), enacted shortly after and in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. The OPA largely replaces the oil spill provisions in the federal Clean Water Act. When BP accepts liability for the Gulf spill, this is the statute to which it is referring — and the statute pursuant to which it and the Coast Guard are seeking to first halt, and later clean up, the spill.

Offshore drilling itself, at least in federal waters, is governed through licenses that the federal Minerals Management Service granted pursuant to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which governs oil and gas exploration and drilling on the federal portions of the continental shelf. Finally, BP and others may be liable under the Gulf states' tort law and property law, and perhaps individual state statutes, for damages to fisheries, private property, and state property.


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