Could not load widget with the id 2575.

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.[1] There are approximately “25 spills per day into navigable waters and an estimated 75 spills on land.”[2] Yet few Americans could name more than one or two notably large 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 unfolded by oil corporations, and the lack of access by the public to accurate information,[3] 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 a spill, powerful energy corporations remain free to tout their philanthropy as they clean up a spill and spread misinformation about the extent of the damage.[4] With the current approach the ultimate impact of a spill, and potentially the very existence of a spill, remains unknown to the general population. Although, under the Oil Pollution Act, oil companies must pay fines and face other forms of sanctions after a spill,[5] the oil companies should also be required to notify the public as part of their retribution, utilizing information gathered from independent researchers about all reported oil spills. As courts continue the trend of treating corporations more like individuals,[6] the need for enhanced and unique punishments for largely avoidable environmental catastrophes becomes more 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 and public awareness. 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 allowing courts to levy fines and sanctions that are truly in keeping with accurately tallied damage in the event of a spill. The result of public shaming and the tandem education of the populace may ultimately be to tip society into moving away from our current gas-guzzling model to 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. Public shaming, coupled with independent monitoring during a spill, must be included in the Oil Pollution Act as it evolves to better address oil pollution in our country.

This Note proceeds in two parts. The first section discusses three unique oil spill incidents. The first, Exxon Valdez, sets the stage for modern oil pollution control and legislation. The Deepwater Horizon spill, still hotly litigated, follows as an example of the outcomes of a modern large-scale oceanic spill. The third spill illustrates the potential for secrecy after a spill and the necessity for public awareness after a spill.

The second section illustrates a solution to the ongoing problem of oil spills and the overall lack of public awareness after a spill. This section presents the argument that the Oil Pollution Act must include a clause for public shaming of oil companies to bring oil spills to light in America. The shaming will take on unique forms, and the information will originate from third party observers, rather than from within the companies responsible for the incidents. The argument throughout urges the incorporation of public shaming into the Oil Pollution Act to increase public awareness of oil spills and the dangers they cause to the environment.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Response to Oil Spills, EPA (Nov. 8, 2014),

[2] Merv Fingas, The Basics of Oil Spill Cleanup 3 (Jennifer Charles eds., 2d ed. 2001).

[3] See Jeremy W. Peters, Efforts to Limit the Flow of Spill News, N.Y. Times (June 9, 2010),

[4] See e.g., BP Apology Campaign Begins Airing, CNN (June 3, 2010, 10:05 AM),

[5] 33 U.S.C. § 1321 (f)(1); 33 U.S.C. § 1321(b)(7)(D).

[6] See Citizens United v. Fed. Election Com’n, 558 U.S. 310, 466 (2010) (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (arguing that corporations should not be granted First Amendment free speech protection because corporations are not people).

Submissions The Vermont Law Review continually seeks articles, commentaries, essays, and book reviews on any subject concerning recent developments in state, federal, Native American, or international law.

Learn more about the submissions process >