During the early 1970s, when Congress required the President to define a harmful quantity of oil, very little was known about the effects of oil discharged into the marine environment.
As a result, a very limiting definition of what constitutes a “harmful quantity” of oil was written into regulatory law. Since then, both government and industry have found that this well-intentioned definition suffered from a very significant deficiency. The definition set forth a “sheen test,” which defined as harmful any quantity of oil which can be seen on the surface of water. Because any quantity of oil spilled on water—even a drop or two—will cause a visible sheen, the reporting procedures set out in the regulations required massive paperwork for both government and industry, even when only miniscule amounts of oil were spilled.
The purpose of this paper is to suggest that a proper period of time has elapsed, and sufficient data has been gathered, to permit the regulations to be made more realistic without any harm to the public interest. A secondary benefit from a better regulatory reporting requirement would be increased productivity for professionals in government and industry, if these workers were freed from unnecessary paperwork and allowed more time for preparations necessary to deal with more significant problems relating to potential oil spills.
Supporting this position is the petroleum industry's multimillion dollar program developed in the last decade that determined that small spills have at most a negligible impact on the marine environment.
The authors of this paper hope that redefining of “harmful quantity of oil” will represent one step to use the manpower devoted to energy matters in this country more effectively and efficiently, thereby freeing workers from unnecessary paperwork on minor issues and allowing them to concentrate on the more serious and promising energy matters that must be dealt with in this decade.