by Douglas B. Stevenson, Director, Center for Seafarers’ Rights
The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) convened a roundtable discussion titled “Life Beyond the Crisis” at its newly renovated Gulf Region Center for Maritime Education in Houston, TX on October 21. Twenty-five maritime industry and governmental leaders exchanged views on regulatory and commercial changes that might emerge as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The roundtable participants included high-level representatives of stakeholders likely to be affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, including the US Coast Guard, marine insurers, maritime attorneys, ship operators, classification societies, shipping organizations, and educators. The discussions addressed perceptions and realities arising from the spill.
The roundtable’s dialogue emerged in the context of the unprecedented magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the largest spill ever to originate in US-controlled waters. An estimated 4.93 million barrels of oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico over a five-month period.
In examining possible amendments to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (enacted in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska), several participants emphasized that the Act has worked very well with the shipping industry by reducing spills and establishing effective responsibilities for clean-ups when spills occur. They cautioned against imposing new regulations. Participants also pointed out that misconceptions about the roles of responsible parties and the government underscored the need for better public relations preparations in contingency planning.
The roundtable discussion fostered a government-industry dialogue, essential to meaningful responses to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Participants acknowledged the inevitability of regulatory changes in response to the spill. They highlighted the Coast Guard’s policy of strengthening partnerships with the maritime industry as an important factor in these regulations. Roundtable participants, by sharing their particular sector’s experience and concerns, gained a greater understanding of the issues of others.
SCI sponsors roundtable discussions periodically to gather different senior government and marine industry leaders for candid, exploratory conversation on major issues of the day. Recent discussions have included the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006; seafarer shore leave access; and humanitarian care for seafarers held hostage by pirates.