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Emerging from the Mire: Using Public Shaming After an Oil Spill to Yield Informed Decisions and Alter Behavior

Emerging from the Mire: Using Public Shaming After an Oil Spill to Yield Informed Decisions and Alter Behavior

Rachel Stewart 

Every year, there are about 14,000 oil spills within the United States alone. There are approximately “25 spills per day into navigable waters and an estimated 75 spills on land.” Yet few Americans could name more than one or two of the largest oil spills and, for the most part, are oblivious to the rest. The actual number of oil spill incidents is astounding, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of these spills are allowed to go unnoticed by the nation is especially alarming. The shroud of secrecy drawn by oil corporations, and the public’s lack of access to accurate information, ensures that people will remain complacent in their attitudes regarding oil activities, and as such, will not advocate for changes in our energy production and transport.

When the public does become aware of an oil spill, powerful energy corporations remain free to tout their philanthropy as they clean up the spill and spread misinformation about the extent of the damage. With the current approach, the ultimate impact of a spill and potentially its very existence remain unknown to the general population. Although under the Oil Pollution Act oil companies must pay fines and face other sanctions after a spill, as part of their retribution, they should also be required to provide full disclosure to the public about the spill, using information gathered from independent researchers, not their own hires. As courts continue the trend of treating corporations like individuals, enhanced and unique punishments for largely avoidable environmental catastrophes become imperative. 

Borrowing a proven method of remediation from criminal law, this deterrent should take the form of public shaming, through a requirement to accurately publicize oil spills. This will have a direct and meaningful impact on corporations that heretofore would have relied on secrecy and misdirection to mitigate their responsibility. The ultimate goals of public shaming are deterrence, public awareness, and accurate publicity of oil spill disasters. Public shaming provisions would have the effect of making oil companies and their practices more transparent, as well as permitting the public to make more informed decisions, and courts to levy fines and sanctions that accurately reflect a spill’s real damages. The result of public shaming and the tandem education of the populace may ultimately tip society toward less damaging forms of energy, such as solar, electric, and wind. So long as oil companies keep the public in the dark, the status quo will continue. To better address oil pollution in our country, Congress should include public shaming and independent monitoring during a spill in the Oil Pollution Act. 

This Note proceeds in two parts. The first section discusses three oil spill incidents. The first, the Exxon Valdez, set the stage for modern oil pollution control and legislation. The Deepwater Horizon spill chronicles the outcomes of a modern large-scale oceanic spill. The third spill, a largely unknown pipeline spill in Tioga, North Dakota, illustrates the practice of corporate secrecy and the need for public awareness after a spill. 

This Note’s second section explores a method of punishment for oil polluters that both sanctions the violators and engages the public, thereby encouraging people to use their voices and consumer power in response to a spill. This section argues that the Oil Pollution Act must require public shaming of oil companies to bring greater public attention to spills. The shaming will take unique forms, and the information used to shame the companies responsible for the incidents will originate from third-party observers, rather than from within the companies themselves. This Note urges Congress to incorporate public shaming into the Oil Pollution Act in order to increase public awareness of oil spills and the environmental dangers they cause.

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