After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events

By Thomas A. Birkland | Go to book overview

4
Oil Spills as Focusing Events

On March 27, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into the waters of the sound and south-central Alaska. Almost immediately the news media converged on the site of the spill, beaming pictures of oiled shorelines, birds, and sea otters to a shocked and angry public. 1 While this shock was sincere, many people—environmentalists, fishers, and elected officials—suggested that this spill was no fluke. Rather, they argued, such a spill was an inevitable result of the nation's dependence on fossil fuels and of federal and state decisions to exploit Alaska's oil wealth (Bookchin 1989).

A particularly important outcome of this oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This legislation, enacted eighteen months after the Exxon Valdez spill, ended a nearly 14-year-long deadlock over how to streamline and strengthen federal oil pollution laws. The story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the passage of the Oil Pollution Act is a particularly apt example of focusing events and agenda change. In this case, it seems more than coincidental that significant legislation on oil spills passed so rapidly after the spill, whereas before the Exxon Valdez the passage of such legislation was at an impasse. The Exxon Valdez spill was the key event that finally broke the deadlock, gave policy makers a new sense of urgency, and ultimately resulted in legislation.

In this chapter I explain how oil spills serve as focusing events. While the Exxon Valdez spill was both spectacular and a key turning point in the history of federal oil spill policy, there have been other oil spills. Most spills are relatively small—less than 1,000 gallons—and attract relatively little attention. But truly large oil spills, such as the Santa Barbara oil well blowout in 1969 and the grounding of the Argo Merchant off Nantucket in 1976, gain considerable attention. These spills conjured vivid and enduring images of environmental and aesthetic damage, and they resulted in increased public and congressional attention to the problems of oil spills. In this chapter I assess whether the Exxon Valdez spill was a fluke in agenda or legislative terms, and whether other spills have had a similar influence on the agenda.

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