Approvals in the united states

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All dispersant products used in the US  

must be listed on the US EPA National  

Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution  

Contingency Plan (NCP) Schedule.

Approved dispersants must meet minimum 

effectiveness requirements and the manufacturer 

must report toxicity test results.

The US Regional Response Teams (RRT) may 

preauthorize the use of dispersants in the waters of 

their region. Most of the RRTs have established pre-

authorized zones for dispersant use.

During an incident, the Federal On-Scene 

Coordinator (FOSC) has the authority to approve 

dispersant use. This will often be considered in 

consultation with an Incident-specific RRT, made up 

of federal, state and local trustees.

Effectiveness monitoring is required during 

dispersant operations.

Dispersants are approved as a response option in 

many countries around the world.




  I  Oil Spill Prevention  

Things Y







Dispersants are products used in oil spill response to enhance natural microbial 

degradation, a naturally occurring process where microorganisms remove oil from the 

environment. All environments contain naturally occurring microbes that feed on and 

break down crude oil. Dispersants aid the microbial degradation by forming tiny oil 

droplets, typically less than the size of a period on this page (<100 microns), making 

them more available for microbial degradation. Wind, current, wave action, or other 

forms of turbulence help both this process and the rapid dilution of the dispersed oil. 

The increased surface area of these tiny oil droplets in relation to their volume makes 

the oil much easier for the petroleum-degrading microorganisms to consume. 

Dispersants can be used under a wide variety of conditions since they are generally 

not subject to the same operational and sea state limitations as the other two 

main response tools — mechanical recovery and burning in place (also known as 

in-situ burning). While mechanical recovery may be the best option for small, near-

shore spills, which are by far the majority, it has only recovered a small fraction of 

large offshore spills in the past and requires calm sea state conditions that are not 

needed for dispersant application. When used appropriately, dispersants have low 

environmental and human health risk and contain ingredients that are used safely in 

a variety of consumer products, such as skin creams, cosmetics, and mouthwash 

(Fingas, et al., 1991; 1995).

This fact sheet summarizes the process and decision-making required for dispersant 

use approval in United States waters. It is intended to provide a clearer understanding 

of dispersants, how their use is authorized, and their consideration in a decision-

making process based on a Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA). For more 

information on NEBA, see 

Fact Sheet #6 — Assessing Dispersant Use Trade Offs

Introduction to Dispersants 

Dispersants — Human Health and Safety

Fate of Oil and Weathering

Toxicity and Dispersants 

Dispersant Use Approvals in the  

United States

Assessing Dispersant Use Trade-offs

Aerial and Vessel Dispersant Operations

Subsea and Point Source Dispersant 


Dispersants Use and Regulation Timeline 

Dispersant Use in the Arctic Environment

Fact Sheet Series




  I  Oil Spill Prevention  





When an oil spill occurs, some adverse impacts are inevitable 

because the environment has been exposed to the spilled oil, 

even if it is only at the microscopic level. One primary goal of 

a spill response is to lessen any anticipated impacts using 

knowledge gathered from years of experience and research. 

For each spill, the available response options must be rapidly 

evaluated using a Net Environmental Benefit Analysis approach 

to determine which option or set of options, given incident-

specific conditions, will result in the best outcome for the 

environment and which countermeasures will help minimize 

any adverse effects. In general, the pre-designated lead 

federal official, known as the Federal On-scene Coordinator 

(FOSC), relies on the results of the incident specific NEBA that 

will be performed by the responsible party in conjunction with 

scientific advisors, in order to determine whether dispersant 

use is appropriate.

The main categories of response options available for use in 

a spill include: 1) on-water mechanical containment, recovery 

and removal using booms, skimmers, etc.; 2) application of 

dispersants; 3) controlled (in situ) burning of floating slicks; 4) 

monitoring a slick for possible future action. 

The objective of NEBA is to determine which option or 

combination of options should be used to remove/recover 

the spilled oil in order to mitigate the spilled oil’s overall, or 

net, impact on resources and the environment. Because oil 

spreads quickly, on-scene conditions (wind and water currents) 

will determine the movement of the oil for large on-water spills. 

The response options used must be considered in relation 

to area-specific resources at risk, e.g., biological resources, 

environmentally-sensitive habitats, and human-use areas such 

as tourist beaches and marinas. Time-critical choices must 

be made about which option or options can be implemented 

immediately and effectively to manage potential impacts. 

The collective worldwide spill response experience over the last 

40 years has demonstrated that mechanical recovery alone is 

generally not able to recover a majority of spilled oil especially in 

large offshore spills. According to the US Office of Technology 

Assessment and by actual experience during a spill, mechanical 

methods typically recover no more than 10-15 percent of the oil 

after a major spill in open water (OTA, 1990). In more contained 

areas, e.g., a marina, a higher level of recovery may be achieved 

especially in calm conditions. 

Because the majority of the spilled oil offshore likely cannot be 

recovered before spreading over a much larger area, decisions 

need to be made about how to best manage floating oil using 

a combination of response options for the incident-specific 

conditions. A key goal of a spill response is to prevent an 

oil slick from coming ashore. A decision to use dispersants 

involves evaluating the potential trade-offs: decreasing the 

expected risks to wildlife on the water surface and shoreline 

habitats while increasing the potential risk to organisms in the 

water column. Sometimes the use of dispersants is the only 

viable response option.

Regulatory Facts

The National Oil and Hazardous 

Substance Pollution Contingency  

Plan (NCP)

The National Oil and Hazardous Substance Pollution 

Contingency Plan (NCP) provides the “playbook” for oil spill 

response in the U.S. The organizational framework of the U.S. 

National Response System (NRS), as defined in the NCP is 

shown in 

Figure 1 (see next page). 

The National Response System (NRS) is the mechanism for 

coordinating response actions by all levels of government in 

support of the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) and 

is divided into national, regional, and area levels. The NRS is 

composed of the National Response Team (NRT), Regional 

Response Teams (RRTs), FOSC, Area Committees (AC), Special 

Teams, and related support entities. The basic framework for the 

response management structure is a unified command system 

that brings together the functions of the federal government, 

the state government, and the responsible party (i.e., the spiller) 

to achieve an effective and efficient response, where the FOSC 

retains authority (

40 C.F.R. § 300


Furthermore, the NCP specifies the response actions and 

responsibilities among the federal, state, and local governments 

and as well as the requirements for federal, regional, and area 

contingency plans. One component of these responsibilities is 

the development, selection, and implementation of response 

actions for each region including the procedures for the use of 

dispersants in spill response.

To address the needs for specific regional and area dispersant 

use policy, each RRT and AC defines their minimum 

requirements for the use of dispersants for an oil spill response. 

It should be noted, however, that the FOSC can approve the 

use of dispersants for safety reasons or in pre-approval areas 

without the need for concurrence of the RRT. If appropriate, the 

FOSC may include the use of products, including dispersants, 

to help limit the spread of the oil and to lessen its impact on the 

environment and potential resources at risk.




  I  Oil Spill Prevention  




The NCP Product Schedule

The Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 311(d)(2) and Section 

4201(a)(G) of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires that the 

President maintain a schedule of chemical and biological spill 

response countermeasures, including dispersants, that may be 

used to respond to oil spills to ensure that the products are 

used effectively and appropriately; the President has delegated 

this authority to the U.S. EPA. 

Approval to use dispersants on an incident begins with the 

authorities laid out by the NCP. Subpart J (Use of Dispersants 

and Other Chemicals; 

40  C.F.R. § 300.910

) of the NCP is the 

U.S. EPA’s Product Schedule for these regulated chemical and 

biological countermeasures (EPA online, 2011a). The Product 

Schedule  is EPA’s listing of the chemical and biological agents 

that have submitted the required information and, once listed, 

may be considered for approval by the FOSC for use during 

an incident. 

Dispersants and other response countermeasures are required 

to be on this schedule if they are to be considered for use during 

a response. For a dispersant or other chemical to be listed on 

the Product Schedule, the manufacturer must submit specific 

test results and supporting technical data on their product to 

the U.S. EPA as defined in 

40 C.F.R. C.F.R. § 300.915

. For 

chemical dispersants, the listing requirements include tests for 

effectiveness and toxicity. 

To be listed as a dispersant, the product must demonstrate 

a minimum effectiveness value as measured by a standard 

dispersant effectiveness test using defined test oils. Specific 

toxicity testing data, physical properties and other information 

about the product must also be submitted. In the wake of 

the response to the Macondo Well release the EPA now 

publishes the 

Toxicity and Effectiveness Data Summaries

 for all 

product categories on the Product Schedule, which facilitates 

comparisons and evaluations of products and categories.

The National Response System (NRS) organization as dictated by the NCP.

National Level

Regional Level

Area Level

National Response Team (NRT)


15 Federal Agencies


National Planning & Coordination for spills


Provide assistance & guidance for the 


Regional Response Team (RRT)


Regional planning and coordination of 

preparedness and response actions, 

including use of dispersants


Includes state & local representation


Support FOSCs

Federal On Scene Coordinator 



Pre-designated federal official assigned 

the authority to coordinate and direct an 

oil spill response


Decision-maker for dispersant use

Area Committee (AC)


Oversees development of the for 

FOSC's area of responsibility


Develop area planning for response 

consistent with RCP, including the 

use of dispersants




Contingency Plans 



Contingency Plans 






  I  Oil Spill Prevention  




NOTE:  Inclusion on the Product Schedule does NOT 

indicate a recommendation or endorsement of any listed 

product by the EPA or other federal agencies; it only 

means that the manufacturer has submitted the required 

information for inclusion on the schedule and it may be used 

during a response.

Authorizations for Dispersant  

Use in the U.S.

The following sections outline the various responsibilities 

imposed on various agencies and organizations by the 

regulatory changes in U.S. policy.

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA 90)

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA 90) was signed into law in August 

1990 and improved the nation’s ability to prevent and respond 

to oil spills by establishing provisions that expanded the federal 

government’s ability, and provided the money and resources 

necessary to respond to oil spills. In addition, OPA 90 provided 

new requirements for contingency planning both by government 

and industry. 

The NCP was expanded in a three-tiered approach: 1) 

the federal government is required to direct all public and 

private response efforts for certain types of spill events; 2) 

Area Committees, composed of federal, state, and local 

government officials, must develop detailed, location-specific 

Area Contingency Plans (ACP); and 3) owners or operators of 

vessels, pipelines, and facilities that transport, handle, or store 

oil in certain quantities must prepare their own Response Plans. 

As a means to address the requirements of OPA 90, a three-

fold strategy was used nationally (with some location-specific 

modifications) to determine the regional and area planning and 

preparedness requirements for the use of dispersants in U.S. 

waters. This included:

Pre-spill Planning

Pre-spill planning, including evaluating the potential use of 

products listed on the NCP Product Schedule, was delegated 

to the RRT and AC decision-making bodies under the direction 

of OPA 90. The RRTs were charged with developing pre-

authorization plans (also called pre-approval agreements) 

in advance of an incident to identify the following areas: 


Pre-authorized zones — areas where dispersants can 

be authorized by the FOSC without RRT concurrence.


Case-by-case basis zones — areas where the FOSC 

must consult with appropriate agencies on the RRT

e.g., EPA, Department of Commerce (DOC)/NOAA, 

Department of the Interior (DOI), and  states, to determine 

whether dispersant use is appropriate. 


Exclusion zones — areas where dispersants are not to 

be used. 

Many RRTs have limited dispersant applications in marine 

waters to water depths greater than 30 feet (10 m) and in 

most coastal areas there is an additional requirement that the 

dispersants be used in areas more than 3 nautical miles (5.6 

km) from shore which means use in near shore areas and 

estuaries is generally excluded. 

Because these products are used to treat oil spills in open 

ocean waters, the FOSC is provided by the US Coast Guard 

(USCG). At this time, there is no dispersant available that is 

approved for use in United States freshwater environments. 


Pre-authorization means that if agencies have signed a pre-

authorization agreement, and if a spill meets the conditions 

outlined in the applicable Regional Contingency Plan (RCP), 

then the FOSC can approve dispersant use within specified 

zones as soon as he/she believes it will result in greater benefit 

than if they are not used. 

To develop the pre-authorizations for dispersants, the RRT 

representatives from U.S. EPA and the states with jurisdiction 

over the state waters for each region, along with U.S. DOC 

and DOI natural resource trustees, conduct a NEBA review 

of the risks and benefits associated with chemical dispersant 

applications. This evaluation also requires an assessment of the 

likely impacts to threatened and endangered species residing 

or passing through the areas being considered by the RRT 

member agencies. 

Each RRT will approve or disapprove the pre-authorization 

agreements which will be incorporated into the RCP and the 

associated USCG ACPs. Most pre-authorization plans outline 

zones where, or conditions under which, dispersants may be 

used. These are generally based on geographic area, distance 

from the shoreline, water depth, and/or season and may be 

limited by the presence of specific environmentally sensitive 

resources (e.g., a marine sanctuary).





  I  Oil Spill Prevention  




The designation of pre-authorization areas, and the discussions 

that led to their establishment, can be very important steps 

towards a timely and effective spill response.

NOTE: The pre-authorization status for each region is 

available from 

on the RRT regional 

links. Additional information on regional decision-making 

relative to dispersant use can be obtained from the USCG 

Vessel Response Plan Program under “

Maps and Photos – 

Dispersant Usage Map


Approvals During an Incident — Case-by-Case

If human health or safety is at immediate risk, the FOSC 

needs no approval for the use of dispersants as a protective 

measure. Otherwise, when the FOSC determines that the use 

of dispersants is required and there is no pre-authorization for 

their use, he/she may only use them with the concurrence of the 

EPA representative to the RRT and state RRT representatives in 

consultation with the DOC and DOI natural resource trustees. 

This group of state and federal agency decision-makers is also 

known as the Incident-specific RRT. 

In most instances where a spill occurs in areas where pre-

authorization is not in place, the USCG FOSC requests a 

decision by the incident-specific RRT within four hours of his/

her initial request so that a dispersant decision is rendered 

in time to execute a dispersant operation and effective 

application, also known as the “window of opportunity”. For 

more information on this topic refer to 

Fact Sheet #3 — Fate 

of Oil and Weathering


After the initial consultation, the incident-specific RRT can agree 

to endorse the use of dispersants, possibly with specifically-

defined use conditions, or they can veto their use. 

Exclusion Zones

As stated, many RRTs have established areas within their 

region where dispersants may not be used. Many of these 

exclusion zones are located within state waters, typically in 

areas less than 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) from shore or with 

water depths shallower than 30 feet (10 m). The primary 

reason dispersants could be used in these areas is if human 

health or public safety is at immediate risk from the incident. 

As mentioned earlier, the FOSC needs no approval for the 

use of dispersants as a protective safety measure.

International Approvals

Dispersants are considered a primary response option in 

a number of countries and are approved for use in many 

countries, including the U.K., South Korea, Australia, Egypt, 

France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, 

Singapore, Spain, Thailand, and a number of coastal African, 

South American, and Middle Eastern countries (ITOPF). The 

requirements for application are country-specific and must 

be verified prior to application.

Monitoring Requirements

In the U.S., dispersant approvals include operational monitoring 

requirements to assist the Unified Command in determining 

the effectiveness of dispersant application. This can include 

a definition of when dispersant use should be discontinued, 

e.g., definition of a threshold which if reached would result in 

stopping the dispersant operation. Ideally, the decisions to use 

and discontinue the use of dispersants are made based on 

objective scientifically-based research and effectiveness testing 

and involve the components associated with a relevant NEBA. 

Periodic operational monitoring allows the individuals managing 

the incident, i.e., the Unified Command (UC) to assess the 

effectiveness of dispersant use and determine whether their 

use should be continued. 

In the U.S., monitoring of dispersant effectiveness and 

gathering potential exposure data is performed according 

to the Special Monitoring of Applied Response Technologies 

(SMART) protocols, a methodology that involves the use of 

three tiers of monitoring. In order of increased requirements: 


Tier I — Visual observations by trained observers, 


Tier II — On-water visual observations and fluorescence 

spectrometry at a single depth to measure oil 

concentrations under treated slicks; and 


Tier III — On-water visual observations, fluorescence 

spectrometry at multiple depths, and water chemistry 

sample collection to monitor horizontal and vertical 

spreading of the dispersed oil. 

Updated Regulatory Status

In 2010, during the response to the Macondo Well release in the 

Gulf of Mexico, large volumes of dispersants were applied to 

offshore surface oil by aircraft and vessel (National Commission, 

2011). Following this use, the RRTs were instructed to review 

their existing dispersant use policies and update their Regional 




  I  Oil Spill Prevention  




Contingency Plans (RCPs) to reflect the knowledge and 

experienced gained.

This was also the first instance where dispersants were injected 

into the oil release site where it exited the seafloor. Although 

this use of dispersants, known as subsea injection, had been 

previously studied and considered for possible use, this was the 

first documented successful application of the approach. As a 

result, subsea injection of dispersants is now considered by the 

coastal RRTs to be a potential option to mitigate the adverse 

effects from subsea oil discharges offshore. The National 

Response Team (NRT) has issued monitoring guidance for 

subsea use of dispersants. For more information on the subsea 

application, refer to 

Fact Sheet #8 — Subsea and Point 

Source Dispersant Operations



Fingas, M. F., R. G. Stoodley, N. Stone, R. Hollins, and I. Bier. 1991. 

Testing the Effectiveness of Spill-Treating Agents:  Laboratory Test 

Development and Initial Results. In: Proc. 1991 International Oil Spill 

Conference. API. Washington, DC.

Fingas, M. F., D. A. Kyle, N. D. Laroche, B. G. Fieldhouse, G. Sergy, and R. 

G. Stoodley. 1995. “The Effectiveness of Spill Treating Agents.”  The Use 

of Chemicals in Oil Spill Response, ASTM STP1252, P. Lane, ed. ASTM, 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore 

Drilling (National Commission). 2011. Deepwater: The Gulf Oil Disaster 

and the Future of Offshore Drilling – Report to the President. 398 

pages. Available from:

National Response Team Response Committee. 2002. NRT-RRT Fact 

Sheet: Who Decides What Products Can be Used during an Oil 

Spill Response?  4 pp.



Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), U.S. Congress. 1990. Coping  

with an Oiled Sea:  An Analysis of Oil Spill Response Technologies.  

OTA-BP-O-63. 70 pp.

U.S. EPA. 2007. Subpart J: The National Oil and Hazardous Substances 

Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) Product Schedule. 2 pages. 

Available online from:



U.S. EPA online. 2011a. “EPA Emergency Management – NCP Product 

Schedule – Subpart J.”  Last modified on September 01, 2011. Available 



U.S. EPA online. 2011b. “Oil Pollution Act Overview.”  Last modified 

on January 28, 2011. Available from:


U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) online. 2011. USCG Homeport Vessel 

Response Plan Program - Maps and Photos – Dispersant Usage Map. 

2011. Available from:


International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF), 


Profiles. Available online at:



U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). 1963. Federal Water Pollution 

Control Administration Policy on the Use of Chemicals to Treat 

Floating Oils. July 5, 1963. 1 page.

The current version of the NCP Product Schedule can be viewed at:


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