Court says EPA must update its offshore oil spill response plan

Court says EPA must update its offshore oil spill response plan
© Getty Images

A federal judge indicated late Tuesday that he believes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must update its plans for responding to offshore oil spills. 

Federal Judge William Orrick, an Obama appointee, said in a court decision that the law “strongly suggests that the duty to update and revise the [plan] ‘as advisable’ is not discretionary, but required.”

His declaration came as part of his rejection of the EPA’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit aiming to compel it to revise its plan. That means the court did not order the agency to alter the plans at this time, but it could be a preview of what’s to come in a future ruling as the case plays out. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The EPA last updated its response plans in 1994, many years prior to high-profile spills such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Those pushing for a new plan particularly took issue with what they described as the 1994 plan’s “open-ended use” of chemical dispersants to manage spills. 

Dispersants are used in oil spills with the goal of breaking up the oil into smaller droplets, but their opponents said in court that the products are “toxic” and claimed they are “likely do more environmental harm than good, and generally exacerbate a spill’s ecological impact.”

The suit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the UC Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, which touted Orrick’s decision as a victory on Wednesday. 

“EPA’s ongoing failure to update its plan to reflect scientific knowledge about the dangers of dispersant use — despite our clients’ years of urging — is irresponsible and unlawful,” said Claudia Polsky, who directs the Berkeley clinic, in a statement. 

"The biggest lesson is that offshore drilling is inherently dirty and dangerous and should be phased out," added Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity. "But while it continues, we need smarter spill responses that don’t defer to the oil industry."

An EPA spokesperson told The Hill that the agency was reviewing the decision but did not offer additional comment.

The agency had argued that language of the law governing the response plans left whether to update them up to its discretion.