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Beware the Sirens of Big Oil

My advice to coastal residents in the Lower 48: Take heed. We learned the hard way that Big Oil's promises were good only until authorizing laws were passed and permits approved.
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Cordova, Alaska. In the early 1970s, Big Oil wooed Alaskans with a seductive chorus promising jobs, riches, and risk-free oil development, pipeline transfer, and tanker transport. Alaska politicians fell under its spell.

Today Big Oil generates more than 85 percent of Alaska's operating revenues - and the song has changed. The tune is now militant and strident, as the industry demands ever more opportunity to drill and ever less regulation. This "opportunity" comes at the expense of deeply rooted indigenous cultures, family lifestyles, and businesses like commercial fishing and tourism that rely on Alaska's abundant natural resources.

But the same enchanting Siren music once tailored to Alaskans is currently playing for Floridians, Californians, and others who live on our seacoasts. From my perspective as a survivor of North America's largest oil spill--the 1989 Exxon Valdez--it seems too many politicians are falling under its spell. My advice to coastal residents in the Lower 48: Take heed.

We learned the hard way that Big Oil's promises were good only until authorizing laws were passed and permits approved. The industry promised, for instance, in the early 1970s to double hull its tankers to minimize the risk of spills. But it will take until 2015 - more than 40 years - for it to make good on this promise. That's too late for those of us in Prince William Sound. Ironically, too, 2015 will arrive long before the last of the toxic oil that spilled from the single-hulled Exxon Valdez is gone from our beaches--and long before our herring even begin to recover.

credit: 2009 Dave Janka.
Relatively unweathered Exxon Valdez oil from the 1989 spill 20 years ago lingers just beneath the surface of beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The buried oil has delayed recovery of the ecosystem as it is often encountered by wildlife such as sea otters and sea ducks that forage for shellfish on intertidal beaches.

The once thriving multi-million dollar herring fisheries are nonexistent and the wildlife that feed on herring--well, it will recover whenever the herring recover. Maybe. Scientists make no promises.

Safer tankers are no excuse to drill as the on-going oil rig blowout in Australia illustrates. Oil will spill as long as oil is drilled because we are human, and humans err. The industry has yet to make good on another decades-old promise made when the tanker Torrey Canyon wrecked on Brittan's shore in 1967. The industry still can't clean up oil when it washes ashore. "Nothing's changed," observed a retired oil port official in Shetland (Scotland) when I was there earlier this month.

But the oil industry can certainly put on a good show of busy-ness for appearances sake. Exxon spent billions during its 1989 cleanup - spill survivors call it a cover up - which was a tax write-off as a cost of doing business. The oil industry had promised residents that harsh dispersants (chemical products) would not be used on biologically sensitive beaches. Further, Exxon promised cleanup workers that its products were not toxic: "Just wear the right gear," they said. Dispersants and products with solvents were used on beaches. Adequate gear was not provided and thousands of workers became sick.

Exxon claimed the illnesses were colds and flu - the "Valdez Crud" - and the company fought workers who sued, claiming their respiratory illnesses and other sicknesses were chemical poisoning. This saga is still playing out as Barnett and Lerner, an admiralty law firm in Florida, is taking ExxonMobil to court to pay for disabilities, medicine, health care, and lost wages of those who survived the failed 1989 cleanup.

Meanwhile, academics have reported that cleanup workers from tanker spills in Spain (2002) and South Korea (2007), respectively, were found to have respiratory damage, central nervous system damage, and even DNA (chromosome) damage from inhalation of oily mists and particulates - all hallmark symptoms of overexposure to oil. This leaves little doubt that Exxon Valdez cleanup workers suffered a similar fate, whether or not Exxon chooses to admit and take responsibility for their suffering.

Finally, Exxon promised to make the community whole after the spill. We naively took Exxon's word, not realizing that Exxon meant to the minimum extent mandated by law. The corporation, wielding ill-gained human rights ( and its enormous wealth, fought spill victims - common people - in court for over 20 years to minimize its liability and reduce the number of claims against them. Owners of tourism businesses and shoreside vendors that supported the commercial fishing industry were some of the first to have their claims thrown out, of court, despite serious losses. The bitterness and length of the lawsuit itself generated its own trauma that played out as decades of community dysfunction ( In the end, people whose claims survived the 20-year battle recovered about 10 percent of their economic losses - and not one cent of the losses to culture or quality of life (

People in Florida, California, and other coastal states considering offshore oil should beware. What good will come of sabotaging your existing tourism and sport fishing industries, and your beautiful coastlines where residents and visitors recreate, with the false promises of Big Oil? Our legal system will treat you no better than it did us in Alaska should your beaches become oiled.

credit: 2008 Linden O'Toole.
Spill survivors in Cordova, Alaska, realized the danger posed to all communities from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Exxon Valdez case. The court restricted punitive damages so severely that they are not longer a deterrent for companies weighing the risks of future oil spills against the costs of making drilling and transport safer.

Falling for the siren song will only indenture your state to an oil-dependent future that is already past. It's time to grow new green industries, rooted in regional strengths, rather than support transnational oil corporations that do not factor your community's quality of life or values in their bottom lines. Just say 'no' to the Sirens.

Spill survivor and author Riki Ott, PhD, shares insights on disaster trauma and recovery in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). Ott is a former "fisherma'am" and now a full-time community activist, committed to making human values count over corporate profits.

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