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Exxon Lessons for the BP Spill

Corralling an oil spill is like putting fog in a bag. Based on Alaska's experience, what might we expect in the Gulf as the oil platform disaster worsens?
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The question after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was not if another catastrophic spill would hit the United States, but when.

Now we know. Unless BP's mile-deep gusher can be capped or shut off, it may exceed in volume and damage the 11 million gallon spill that occurred in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Estimates are that 1.5 million gallons have already spewed out and it seems to be getting worse, not better.

As an environmental reporter for the Seattle Times, I was one of the first on the scene of the Exxon spill and later shared a Pulitzer for its coverage. Twenty-one years later, neither I nor the oil industry have an answer for what to do now.

Corralling an oil spill is like putting fog in a bag.

Based on Alaska's experience, what might we expect in the Gulf as the oil platform disaster worsens?

First, BP, like Exxon, will be properly contrite, determined, and will promise to make restitution. None of this will matter. Exxon said the same things, probably caused as much damage as it prevented in its power-washing of beaches, and spent two decades beating down $5 billion in civil damages for those harmed by its spill to a little more than 10 percent of that. Watch what they do, not what they say.

Second, cleaning up oil once it escapes its confinement remains an almost impossible task. The technology was not very effective in Alaska, and so far it does not seem very effective in the Gulf. In Alaska, the oil industry tried chemical dispersants such as are being used in the Gulf, booms, burning, hot-water pressure washing of beaches, bio-remediation by culturing bacteria to eat oil, and even wiping rocks with rags. None worked very well. After humans quit, winter storms finally broke up and eroded the surface oil, while subsurface oil still lingers.

Once wind pushes the oil into mangroves and estuaries, forget about it. The damage is hard to imagine until you see it. But to get an idea, dump a quart of dirty motor oil on your driveway and try to clean it up.

There will be immediate photogenic bird kills, but then a much longer and more insidious presence of oily contaminants in Gulf ecosystems. The real damage will play out over years, not days.

While the focus in coming weeks will be on defending the coast from oily tides, lawyers will parachute in ahead of beach workers. At issue will be how much wildlife and seafood was present before the spill, and how much was lost. The inventorying will pit legions of scientists from the Gulf states against legions of scientists from BP. While President Obama is holding BP responsible for restitution, just how much damage occurs? This will be the crucial question in the years of court fights to come. This disaster will mean full employment for a shrimp-bucket-full of attorneys and biologists.

That means the more the Gulf states know about their coastal environment, the more money they will collect at the back end. They'd better hope they haven't gutted their environmental agencies, because they need them right now. Big Time. Count, count, count.

Scoffing at environmentalists is national sport, of course, until pollution hits close to home. Another prediction, based on what happened in Alaska, is that once the oil starts to devastate commercial marine livelihoods, you'll see tree-hugger conversions among redneck resource workers more dramatic than that of Saul on the road to Damascus. Fishermen will howl - but still will lose their livelihoods.

A likely beneficiary of this spill are environmental organizations and their efforts to promote conservation and discourage new drilling. BP has a history of shooting itself in the foot. It allowed corrosion on the Alaska pipeline it managed to trigger a spill that helped derail a campaign to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and now has this nightmare right after the Obama Administration proposed opening new swaths of coast to oil leasing. The oil industry is its own worst enemy.

Eventually there will be investigations, some kind of Congressional legislative reform, and -- if the spill is costly enough -- an overhaul of BP management similar to what happened at Exxon, in which a cowboy company gets (some) religion. Technology will take a stride ahead and things might get a bit safer, for a while.

But the threat will remain, vigilance will relax, and risks will run higher as the world gets more desperate for oil and drills in ever-more-inaccessible places. Petroleum product consumption in the United States has increased about 10 percent since the Exxon Valdez spill, according to the Department of Energy, despite some impressive renewable energy and conservation efforts.

Until we make real strides in weaning from fossil fuels -- which, incidentally, would help save the climate, save the oceans, and get us less entangled in endless wars -- it's almost certain I can recycle this blog post again in ten or twenty years.

But energy conservation is one of those dad-gum socialist ideas, isn't it? Why conserve when it's so American to just let the oil industry do its thing?

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