Exxon Valdez Oil Spill a Cautionary Tale for Arctic Ocean Drilling

The Exxon Valdez disaster remains a tragic lesson in what can be lost with a few bad policy decisions and a few broken promises. The spill became an enduring symbol of recklessness, hubris, arrogance, complacency and outright dishonesty.
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As the Obama administration prepares to issue final permits for exploratory oil drilling on the outer continental shelf off Alaska's Arctic coast this summer, the public is hearing some familiar promises from industry and government -- the risk of a catastrophic oil spill is small, best available technology will be used to prevent spills, any oil spill will be effectively contained and cleaned up, the government will keep a vigilant eye on industry and so on. We heard the same empty promises 40 years ago.

Seeking approval to build the Trans Alaska Pipeline back in the 1970s, government and industry promised the people of America that oil would be shipped safely from Alaska, and "not one drop" would be spilled. There were to be double-hulled tankers, a fail-safe tanker monitoring system, state-of-the-art spill response capability, and of course, the government would keep a vigilant eye on industry. But after getting approval to build the pipeline, the big money began to flow and all such promises were promptly forgotten.

And at four minutes past midnight on March 24, 1989 -- 23 years ago on Saturday -- the single-hulled supertanker "Exxon Valdez," loaded with 1.3 million barrels of toxic Alaska North Slope oil, ran hard aground on a well-marked reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, rupturing eight of its 11 oil cargo holds, and causing at the time the nation's largest oil spill. So much for "not one drop."

The Exxon Valdez disaster remains a tragic lesson in what can be lost with a few bad policy decisions and a few broken promises. In her book The Heart of the Sound, Alaska nature writer Marybeth Holleman says that those who experienced the Exxon Valdez first-hand are "repositories of human memory for an event that shouldn't be forgotten." The spill became an enduring symbol of recklessness, hubris, arrogance, complacency and outright dishonesty. It remains a cautionary tale for Arctic offshore drilling today.

Over 40,000 tons of toxic oil spilled into one of the world's most productive, pristine, cold-water, coastal ecosystems. The oil eventually spread over 10,000 square miles of Alaska's coastal ocean, 1,300 miles of spectacular shoreline, including national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, a national forest and ancestral lands of Alaska Natives. And the oil spread over 600 miles from the site of the grounding.

The spill occurred at a time of critical biological productivity along the Alaska coast -- the spring plankton bloom had just begun, herring were moving inshore to spawn, seabirds and whales were returning, juvenile salmon were emerging from streams into nearshore waters, seals and sea otters were beginning to pup. The spill killed thousands of marine mammals, and hundreds of thousands of seabirds, and much of the intertidal zone. And there were long-term, chronic impacts to fish and wildlife -- reproductive failures, deformities, reduced growth rates, altered feeding habits, organ damage, tumors, genetic damage and viral diseases. The Sound's ecologically important herring population collapsed.

But body counts give only an abstract accounting of the devastating impact of the spill. Many of us watched in vain as sea otters shivered in oiled fur that once kept them warm; whales surfaced in oil which they then inhaled; birds struggled, sick and unable to fly; river otters crawled off to die under rocks; and thousands of juvenile salmon showed up dead in oil skimmers. The immediate, overwhelming sense of tragedy and loss was eloquently conveyed by Walter Meganack, a regional Alaska Native elder, who said in June that year:

"... what we see now is death. Death, not of each other but of the source of life -- the water... It is too shocking to understand. Never in the millennium of our tradition have we thought it possible for the water to die. But it is true."

And today, 23 years later, most of the fish and wildlife populations and habitats injured by the spill have yet to fully recover, and there is still residual, toxic oil in beach sediments. It is becoming evident that the injured Alaska coastal ecosystem may never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez spill.

What of the promised "state-of-the-art spill response"? Despite a three-year, $2 billion effort by Exxon, the response was a spectacular failure, recovering less than 7 percent of the spilled oil. And social, psychological, and economic impacts were unprecedented, and communities collapsed. Although Exxon promised coastal residents just after the spill that it would make them "whole," instead the company fought their claims in court for 20 years, whittling down the jury award to just 10 percent of its original value. And today the government litigation continues. The government presented Exxon with its final demand for payment of $92 million over five years ago, Exxon has not paid it, the government has not tried to collect, and the parties continue to argue about it in court. This is the true legacy of "responsible oil development" in Alaska.

Now, fast forward to April 2, 2010, when President Obama announced a dramatic expansion of offshore drilling in U.S. waters, declaring that "oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." Three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest offshore spill in history. As oil continued to wash ashore in the Gulf in August, he declared that "the vast majority of the oil appears to be gone." Either the president is getting spectacularly bad advice or, more likely, he is simply repeating oil industry rhetoric to suit his fossil energy politics. And although few of the recommendations from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill commission have been implemented, the administration is again moving forward with an aggressive expansion of offshore drilling in arctic and deepwater areas of the Gulf.

The risks of offshore drilling are real. For the Arctic, the administration last year released its own modeling for a "very large oil spill" from an exploration wellhead blowout that would continue for 74 days, spill over 2 million barrels of oil, spread over 200,000 mi2 (an area larger than the state of California), and oil over 850 miles of shoreline, even spreading into Russian waters. They assure us that this is only a remote possibility, there is a good oil spill response plan, and that 95 percent of any oil spill would be recovered.

Well, we've heard it all before. What we know for certain is this -- government and industry continue to overstate benefit and understate risks of offshore drilling; industry will not adopt best and safest technology, as it is more costly; industry cannot contain or recover a large offshore oil spill, particularly in Arctic sea ice; environmental, social and economic impacts of a large Arctic spill would be devastating; a spill-injured marine ecosystem cannot be restored; and no amount of money can adequately compensate people for their losses. And even if there is no major spill from Arctic offshore drilling, the hundreds of millions of tons of carbon produced from the seabed will eventually end up in the global atmosphere and oceans, further accelerating climate change that is already damaging Arctic ecosystems. For the Arctic, offshore drilling is clearly a lose-lose proposition.

How many more oil spills, destroyed ecosystems, record heat waves, extreme weather events, and record sea-ice minimums will it take for policy-makers to realize that the era of fossil energy is, or should be, over? The only rational course we have for energy policy is to get aggressive with our transition to sustainable energy, stop developing new oil and coal fields, end federal subsidies to fossil energy, tax carbon emissions, and use these additional revenues to increase by ten-fold our energy efficiency and sustainable alternative energy sources. Indeed, the next few years may be our last best chance to change our energy course before we lock-in a heading for a certain climate disaster.

We've learned the hard way not to trust oil industry and government promises of responsible offshore oil development and energy policy. And as the old saying goes: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... " and, as former President George W. Bush said, "... well, you're just not going to fool me again."

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