The Role of Expert-based Information in Maritime Oil Spill Prevention Policy in the Puget Sound: How Risk Assessments Reflect the Larger Political Context
Leahy, JD Ross
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Oil spills and their prevention have been political issues in Washington State and the Puget Sound area since the Prudhoe Bay oil discoveries on Alaska's North Slope. In an attempt to improve both the process and outcome of oil spill prevention debates, risk assessment-based approaches have been used as a tool to inform spill prevention efforts since the early 1980s. Quantitative tools like risk assessment have a good reputation for clarifying the worth (in terms of risk reduction and cost) of policy choices available to policymakers. However, they are also criticized for being vulnerable to prevailing power imbalances and political influence. With these critiques in mind, this thesis looks at the history of oil spill prevention efforts in Puget Sound along with associated risk assessment efforts to determine the nature and extent of political influence on their structure and use. Guided by an expert-based information framework based on the Advocacy Coalition Framework, this thesis establishes the political context (policy subsystem) of oil spill prevention in the Puget Sound from 1975-2013 and relates it to the structure and use of selected risk assessments. Elite interviews and document review were used to describe and categorize the political context, as well as the structure and use of five Puget Sound-specific risk assessments developed during that time. I found that a largely adversarial policy subsystem dominated oil spill prevention policy in the Puget Sound from the 1970s until the mid to late 2000s, when the subsystem shows evidence of becoming more collaborative. The adversarial subsystem led to predominantly politicized use of risk assessment results, and also at times influenced the framing and structure of the risk assessments themselves. The collaborative policy subsystem's emergence is so recent that its influence is less clear, but it appears to be influencing risk assessment structure at present. The results suggest that risk assessments, though sometimes touted as a solution to contentious technical debates, may be less well suited to adversarial contexts than to collaborative contexts. These results are consistent with findings in the literature regarding the use of expert-based information in contested public policy decisions.
- Marine affairs