Oil industry suits against EPA could threaten water quality

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Through lawsuits, the oil industry is seeking to narrow protections provided by the federal Clean Water Act, potentially putting at risk more than half of the nation's waters.

The suits were filed after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently strengthened requirements to prevent spills at storage facilities.

"The stakes are very high: If the oil industry gets its way, more than half the places where we fish and swim could be fair game for anyone who doesn't want to take basic steps to prevent oil spills," said Jennifer Kefer, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club."

NRDC and Sierra have intervened in the suits filed by American Petroleum Institute and Marathon Oil against the EPA.

"The cases are particularly threatening to clean water protections because they directly attack core regulatory language that defines the waters protected by the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) across the board, rather than focusing on the application of the act to particular waters," added the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). "If this industry motion is successful, it could have an immediate effect on the implementation of the spill prevention program nationwide."

That's because the oil industry claims it should have to take additional steps to prevent spills only in certain waters that meet a narrow, 100-year-old concept of navigability. EPA eliminated that loophole in 2002, when it revised spill prevention rules for large oil storage facilities, making those regulations consistent with the definition EPA adopted for other rules under the CWA decades ago.

In addition, if the oil industry succeeds in its suits, consequences could extend far beyond removing protections from spills in our nation's waters.

"Specifically, EPA could be required to drastically cut back the scope of the Clean Water Act's protections in other programs as well, to reach only 'traditionally navigable waters and their adjacent wetlands,' " NWF said. "Such a result could ultimately leave most of the nation's creeks, wetlands, streams, lakes, and ponds without protection under the federal Clean Water Act."

Oil spills in the U.S.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 24,000 oil spills occur each year. On average, more than 70 are reported per day, it added.

In 2000, EPA estimated in testimony before Congress that "on average, one spill of greater than 100,000 gallons occurs every month from oil-storage facilities and the entire transportation network."

Ocean spills are more publicized, but freshwater spills are more frequent, and often, more destructive to the environment.