The 2010 Oil Spill: Criminal Liability Under Wildlife Laws Page: 4 of 13
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The 2010 Oil Spill: Criminal Liability Under Wildlife Laws
In April 2010 an explosion occurred on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, reportedly killing 11
people, and, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.' Millions of barrels of oil are believed to
have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. As the oil spreads, the implications for harm to wildlife
The United States has many laws that protect wildlife from harm. This report will discuss three:
the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty
Act.2 The Endangered Species Act (ESA), for example, prohibits actions that harass, harm,
wound, or kill a listed species (meaning either a species listed as threatened or endangered).' The
Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits actions that harass or kill marine mammals,
further defining harassment as "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which (i) has the
potential to injure a marine mammal ... or (ii) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal ... by
causing disruption of behavioral patterns."4 The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) makes it
unlawful "by any means or in any manner" to take, kill, or attempt to take or kill "any migratory
bird, any part, nest, or egg of any such bird."5
Criminal Law Basics
Jurisdiction of U.S. Laws on the Outer Continental Shelf
Before analyzing what behavior may be a crime under those laws, some initial jurisdictional
issues need to be discussed. The wildlife statutes of this report have different rules regarding
where they apply. For instance, the ESA applies to "persons under the jurisdiction of the United
States" who take a listed species in the United States, on the territorial seas of the United States,
or on the high seas.6 The MMPA applies to the United States as well as "waters under the
jurisdiction of the United States," which is defined as including territorial sea, and waters 200
miles seaward from its coast.7 The MBTA has no statement regarding its jurisdictional reach.
With or without a statement of jurisdiction, these acts apply to the oil spill from a well located
approximately 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act
(OCSLA) attaches U.S. jurisdiction over the site:
1 An estimated total of 4.1 million bbl were released into the Gulf (4.9 million bbl leaked, but 800,000 bbl captured
before it leaked into the Gulf). See Official Site of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, at
2 Potential criminal liability under other federal and state criminal laws is beyond the scope of this report. For
information on how oil may harm wildlife and their habitat, see CRS Report R413 11, The Deepwater Horizon Oil
Spill: Coastal Wetland and Wildlife Impacts and Response, by M. Lynne Corn and Claudia Copeland.
3~ 16 U.S.C. 1538-prohibiting taking listed species; 16 U.S.C. 1532--defining take as "harass, harm, pursue, hunt,
shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct."
4 16 U.S.C. 1362(13), 1362(18A).
s 16 U.S.C. 703(a).
6 16 U.S.C. 1538(a).
S16 U.S.C. 1362(15).
Congressional Research Service1
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The 2010 Oil Spill: Criminal Liability Under Wildlife Laws, report, August 31, 2010; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc810788/m1/4/: accessed February 25, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.