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What are your thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster?

By Joe Romm

"What are your thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster?"

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I’d be interested in your thoughts on this inauspicious occasion. I have three:

  1. Climate change is not the only reason to wean ourselves from oil.
  2. In the past 20 years, Exxon saw staggering profits and became the primary fossil-fuel company funding climate disinformation.
  3. The company still gets better media attention than it deserves (see NYT suckered by ExxonMobil in puff piece titled “Green is for Sissies”).

Here is a good E&E News PM (subs. req’d) story on how, “Two decades after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the oil spill haunts the Prince William Sound ecosystem, Alaskan fishing communities and the nation’s energy policy”:

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the single-hulled tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude that soiled 1,300 miles of coastline, devastating wildlife and fisheries.

But despite years of cleanup, recovery and litigation that reached the Supreme Court — which just last year slashed a lower court’s award of punitive damages from the accident — the spill’s full impact remains unclear.

The Valdez disaster prompted new oil-safety rules, and the petroleum industry — which wants to widen areas where energy development can occur — says technological advances make oil production, transport and cleanup far less risky than in decades past.

Nonetheless, experts say the possibility of more disasters remains.

“When we look at the amount of oil transported around the world, the number of refineries and other things, it is not without the realm of possibility that we could be looking at another spill of magnitude of the Exxon Valdez,” said David Westerholm, who directs NOAA’s office of response and restoration.

In Alaska, The extent to which Prince William Sound has recovered is a $92 million question.

Following the spill, oil settled in tidal pools, where much of it was buried under the sand. The Alaskan and federal governments argue that an estimated 21,000 gallons of embedded oil continue to introduce toxins, hurting fisheries and depressing wildlife populations.

A provision in a 1991 settlement between Exxon and the state and federal governments allows the governments to reopen the case to seek compensation for unanticipated future damages. They are asking Exxon for $92 million to fund new restoration projects. Exxon has refused to pay the additional money, and the dispute will likely end up in court.

Exxon argues that the more than $1 billion it has already paid the governments, plus the $500 million in punitive damages being paid to spill victims in a class-action lawsuit, is adequate compensation.

While acknowledging that the area is not the same as it once was, Exxon argues that it is impossible to determine what changes were caused by the spill and what are part of natural ecological variations or outside pollutants for which it is not responsible.

What is important, the company says, it that the sound currently hosts bountiful populations of fish, seabirds and marine mammals, and therefore should be considered recovered.

“What science has learned in Alaska and elsewhere is that while oil spills can have acute short-term effects, the environment has remarkable powers of recovery,” Exxon said in a statement. “The claim made by several environmental groups of continuing ‘severe’ ecological damage to the Sound is simply untrue. It is ExxonMobil’s position — and that of many independent scientists — that there are now no species in [Prince William Sound] in trouble due to the impact of the 1989 oil spill.”

Uneven recovery

Assessing recovery is difficult, because the ecological records of Prince William Sound before the spill are incomplete.

Both the government and Exxon agree that many areas have recovered entirely. Seabird and seal numbers have rebounded, and the area’s profitable salmon fishery has experienced six all-time record years since the spill.

But recovery is uneven, said Stanley Rice, a NOAA ecologist whose study of the region precedes the spill.

Wildlife still have not fully recovered on the hardest-hit beaches, Rice said. Otters digging for food around those tide pools often encounter oil or toxic shellfish, preventing them from reclaiming some of their premium feeding habitats.

Some fish stocks are languishing, as well. The herring fishery, once worth $12 million annually, hit record highs in 1992 but mysteriously collapsed in 1993. Since then, it has been closed for all but three seasons in the 1990s.

Steve Moffitt, a fisheries research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a Prince William Sound specialist, said toxins left from the spill might have stressed fish and weakened their immune systems. This makes the populations vulnerable to disease and other factors that could diminish fish stocks, he said.

Ted Meyers, the chief fish pathologist for Alaska, said no scientific link between the herring collapse and the oil spill could be proved, but the wide-ranging effects of the spill were difficult to fully understand.

“I don’t think anybody would deny that the spill probably changed the ecosystem changed to some degree,” Meyers said. “Whether that change caused the herring collapse is an open question.”

Two pods of Prince William Sound orcas lost 40 percent of their populations in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The pods — one of which resides in the sound full time and eats fish and another migratory population that feeds on large marine mammals — are separate and don’t interact or interbreed, Rice said.

Neither has fully rebounded since the spill.

The fish-eaters are slowly breeding, but it will be decades before their population grows to its pre-spill levels, Rice said. The transient pod has not successfully brought a calf to adulthood since the spill and is down to its final six or seven members — none of which is a breeding female, Rice said. Within 20 years, the pod will have vanished.

The demise of the orca pod and persistent subsurface oil are effects no one foresaw in 1989, Rice said.

“[Prince William Sound] is not like a beach next to an oil well. There’s a lot of life,” Rice said. “In general, for the majority of species, life has returned to pretty much normal, but there are some where life is not quite the same.”

1990 pollution law

While the Valdez captain and crew were found at fault for the immediate cause of the spill, the incident also highlighted huge gaps in regulatory oversight of the oil industry.

Congress’ response: the 1990 Oil Pollution Act.

The law overhauled shipping regulations, imposed new liability on the industry, required detailed response plans and added extra safeguards for shipping in Prince William Sound. Under the law, a company cannot ship oil in the United States until it proves that it has plans to safeguard against spills and can respond in case of a disaster.

Lawmakers, marine experts, the oil industry and environmentalists credit the law for major improvements in U.S. oil and shipping industries.

“In Alaska and the Prince William Sound, we got the message. Now the tankers here are perhaps the safest in the world,” said Rick Steiner, a professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska who has studied the Valdez spill and response. “We really got the message loud and clear.”

Since the law’s regulations took effect, average annual spill totals have dropped dramatically, according to the Coast Guard.

From 1973 to 1990, there was an average of 11.8 million gallons of oil spilled every year in U.S. waters. But after the new regulations were enacted, oil spills dropped to approximately 1.5 million gallons per year on average.

Aside from discharges related to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there have been no spills greater than 1 million gallons since enactment of the law, the Coast Guard said.

One of the law’s most significant new requirements was for all tankers in U.S. waters to have double hulls by 2015. A major factor contributing to the vulnerability of the Valdez was its single hull.

Most tankers at sea today have double hulls. Exxon’s shipping subsidiary still operates one single-hulled tanker in Prince William Sound. It is scheduled to retire at the end of this year.

Experts credit the double-hull requirement with avoiding other disasters. For instance, no oil spilled this month when a 900-foot double-hulled tanker carrying nearly 40 million gallons of crude oil crashed into submerged debris near Galveston, Texas.

“If she had been a single-hulled tanker, I assure you I would not be here today,” Greg Pollock, deputy commissioner for the Texas General Land Office, told a Capitol Hill conference. “We would have had a spill four times the size of the Valdez.”

Calls for more regulation

But despite the improvements since the oil pollution law, some experts say more stringent regulations are needed.

The University of Alaska’s Steiner wants other ports and ships to catch up to Prince William Sound’s level of protection. Since the Valdez spill, shipping companies and the Port of Valdez have instituted extra safeguards, such as escort tugboats and double engines and rudders on ships.

“We fixed the problem here in Alaska, but the rest of U.S. ports and waterways are still, I think, at risk,” Steiner said. “Now we need to get Congress to raise the bar on all the other new builds.”

The Washington state Legislature approved a measure this month that will require that a rescue tugboat be stationed year-round near a port in Puget Sound. A tugboat positioned there on an interim basis in winter has made 42 rescues or assists in the past nine years, said Bruce Wishart of People for Puget Sound.

The double-hull requirements apply to tankers and barges, but some federal officials say more stringent regulations may be needed for other vessels as global commerce sends ever-larger shipping containers to sea.

Container ships can have enough oil on board just to power the ship that it could cause a disastrous spill. Many new shipping containers have enough oil to cause what the Coast Guard classifies as a “major” spill, more than 100,000 gallons. The Coast Guard is eyeing proposals that would require double hulls for those vessels, at least around their fuel tanks.

“Some of these are so large that they have great quantities of fuel. That would be a disaster if it spilled,” said Sally Brice-O’Hara, the deputy commandant for operations for the Coast Guard. “That is the next piece of legislation we need to work on.”

Analysts also note that numerous smaller oil spills come from other sources: manufacturing, refining and storage facilities, abandoned vessels or vehicle use.

Dagmar Etkin, who has conducted numerous oil spill analyses for the federal government as president of Environmental Research Consulting, said her studies have shown an increasing number of spills from inland facilities and sources other than tankers and ships.

“It’s places that use oil in some way but are not what we typically think of as big oil,” Etkin said. “There’s a lot at stake for [the shipping industry] because it’s really expensive to make a mistake, so they have really have improved. We’ve done really well there, but there are some other areas that we need to focus on.”

For instance, the top concern for New Jersey — which with New York oversees the largest port complex on the East Coast — is not oil spills from tankers but pollution from abandoned ships, a top official with the state’s environment department said.

“Large spills like the Exxon Valdez … are critical, but some of the challenges in states now are smaller spills from abandoned vessels,” said Robert Van Dossen, assistant director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Continuing risk

Despite all of the advances in oil shipping and safety, many experts say another spill the size of the Valdez — or worse — could still occur.

Westerholm, the head of NOAA’s response and restoration office, said that if a few circumstances had gone differently with the recent ship strike in Galveston, it could have been “catastrophic.” And with more and more ships at sea, he said, there are more chances for disaster.

The number of oil spills reported to NOAA for response has been on the rise over the past decade. In fiscal 2008, NOAA was asked to respond to 134 oil spills.

While the Valdez spill was devastating, there have been at least 34 other spills worldwide that were bigger. An oil tanker that exploded off the coast of Italy in 1991 spilled four times as much oil as the Valdez, and another explosion off Angola spilled as many as 81 million gallons.

“I think people need to remember that in the U.S. we have never truly seen a worst-case discharge,” said Etkin.

Valdez still a factor on Hill

In Congress, the spill continues to reverberate. Environmentalists have cited the disaster repeatedly as they pressure lawmakers not to open new areas to offshore oil-and-gas drilling.

In particular, environmental activists are citing the Valdez spill in pressing the Obama administration not to sell oil leases in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. President George W. Bush in 2007 lifted bans on leasing there that had been part of a broader set of restrictions imposed by his father in the wake of the Valdez spill, an area where lawmakers had several years earlier removed congressional bans.

But Frank Murkowski, a former Republican senator and governor of Alaska, in a recent interview emphasized the prevention and response protections he and others worked to put in place for tanker traffic following the disaster, arguing that such events are now significantly less likely. And, he said, the separate process of exploring for and producing oil is also now more advanced.

“I think one can be critical of the environmental community for not recognizing the advanced technology, which makes exploration safer than it once was,” Murkowski said when asked about environmentalists citing the spill as an argument against new U.S. outer continental shelf leasing.

Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), a former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who was in office at the time of the spill, recalls the disaster affecting another major drilling fight: the battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In an interview, Johnston said there was momentum in Congress to allow leasing in ANWR then, but the effort was stopped dead by the Valdez spill.

“ANWR was ready to be passed. The votes were there and this came along and changed that completely,” Johnston recalled. “I think the votes were lined up and then the votes disappeared.” The current Congress is not going to allow ANWR drilling, and President Obama also opposes it.

But it remains to be seen whether the 20th anniversary year of the spill will color policymaking in other ways, especially on offshore leasing.

When Bush removed long-standing White House coastal leasing bans last year covering the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Congress, under pressure because of skyrocketing energy prices, subsequently allowed overlapping congressional leasing bans to lapse.

The Obama administration has yet to lay out its offshore drilling policy. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pulled back a Bush-era proposal to massively widen offshore leasing but has not said where new leasing could be allowed following the expiration of the bans.

High energy prices last year were a major impetus behind the removal of protections. But the Valdez spill shows that future accidents could swing the pendulum back.

“It educated people that there are real costs to our oil addiction beyond just the financial costs,” said Dan Becker, a longtime environmental activist who now directs the Safe Climate Campaign. “The oiled otters and ducks that workers held up in front of the camera made it visceral to people.”

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13 Responses to What are your thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster?

  1. paulm says:

    Why aren’t there any bus tour round to Exxon CEO’s houses?

  2. Harrier says:

    I’ll assume that Exxon’s corporate board is not as flamboyant as, say, Bank of America’s. The oil business has a certain staid quality to it. Their houses are probably more out-of-the-way, and if nothing else they probably advertise their location less.

  3. Brendan says:

    On your thoughts, let’s say you’re a multi-billion dollar corporation (Phillip Morris) that sells something this is going to cause you legal liabilities down the line (like cigarettes). Now let’s say you’re awash in money from selling your lucrative products so you buy another arms-length related manufacturing company (Kraft Foods). Now over time people realize that your original product maybe isn’t so great, and even want to sue you over it. This drags down your new enterprise in both name association and on your balance books. Given this, as the perfect storm of new regulation (indoor smoking bans) and losing lawsuits, you decide to spin your arms-length company back off because face it, this ship is taking on water and there’s really no sure sign that you’re going to be able to plug the hole. Now let’s say you’re a different multi-billion dollar corporation watching all of this go down (Exxon) for the last 20 years. Would you, as a shareholder want to spend a bunch of R&D or acquisition money on bring forth a new venture that would ultimately be collapsed by your old business? You’d be better off splitting your money and buying shares in a new venture that can’t be on the hook for what that old oil company did for the last 100 years. It’s not like your brand recognition is bringing enough to the table to make it worth it, if the brand recognition even outshines the poor brand reputation. And it’s not like there are any real significant economies of scale to be gained. Both industries may be related to energy, but that’s about where the association ends. Bottom line is that I can’t be surprised that this has all been a greenwashing effort from day one. It’s just that now it’s not even worth spending the money on greenwashing because fewer and fewer people are buying it anymore. Better to just push for a few free puff pieces. The lesson that needs to be learned is that these companies must know that their doomed to the dust bin even if they try to do good and jump on board with renewables (or feed yummy mac-n-cheese to adorable children). These companies are just going to take while the taking is good and vanish into the night, because no human being will ever be held accountable. If we want to change these companies, then we need to change the system they operate under. It is counterproductive for these companies to act responsibly. So both environmentalists and the “drill, baby, drill” contingent need to stop acting like they ever will. The former think that it’s somehow in their own best interest to invest in what will inevitably become the new energy source and latter think that sensitive environment will be protected by new technology, and therefore we should keep using oil. But in this era, neither make sense because the companies won’t be around to reap the benefits and they know it. Unless you change the short-term profit reward, nothing is going to change.

  4. Brewster says:

    Brendan, I personally don’t like your reasoning.

    Unfortunately, I have a hard time disagreeing…

  5. Jay Alt says:

    I haven’t bought any exxon or mobile gasoline in about 3 years.
    But looking back, that was a mistake. I should have shunned them much earlier.

  6. graceonline says:

    Perhaps most telling of the long-term effects of the spill is the fact that, after twenty years, neither the transient nor the resident Orca pods have fully recovered their populations. Indeed, the transient pod has failed to breed successfully and no longer has a female member to carry young. It would be interesting to know what is going on in those sand-buried tide pools.

  7. Dano says:

    Jay, I quit the week the spill happened and it was obvious about the cover up – and one time I was very close to running out of gas because I refused to buy, and I cajoled my friends into not doing it either (see how well its working!).

    Nonetheless, my thoughts are nothing has changed much at all since. Except maybe we are fatter and dumber overall. No, we are certainly dumber since we broke our treasure and army to go to war over oil.

    Best,

    D

  8. hapa says:

    it inspired this cruel joke.
    http://alohaflower.home.mindspring.com/gannet-be-funny.jpg

    coming hot on the heels of the global warming announcements i remember thinking the reckless days were ending. the expansion of fossil fuel use that followed was a heavyweight gut punch: we’re hype, and our top people are just stupid with self-love.

    nothing since has offered different evidence. they’re just not worth the power we give them.

  9. Anne says:

    For many of us, the Exxon Valdez was our 9-11 — a horrific event, with long-term repercussions. I was working for a congressional committee at the time. We were preparing climate change and clean air act legislation, then we took on legislation to help prevent another similar tragedy, this is when the double hulls were required, and our role was to look at what scientific research was needed to better handle these spills in the future. I remember watching workers wearing hazmat gear pressure-washing the rocks on shore with very hot water, sterilizing all of the natural biota, a second punishment for life after the sticky, poisonous goo. And the thousands of birds and other creatures who died, and the fishermen who lost their livelihoods. Despite a court win for the plaintiffs, awarding them a large sum, the payments were never sufficiently disbursed, the powerful defendants were successful at years and years of delay. And now countries are fighting over the right to mine arctic waters for more oil, made possible by the melting ice. It’s difficult not to conclude that homo sapiens have a long way to go up the evolution curve. Twenty years after the fact, we are still acting like barbarians.

  10. Lou Grinzo says:

    The first thing I think of is: “We’ll never make them pay.” What I mean by that is there are numerous externalities associated with fossil fuels, from the obvious one (CO2 emissions) to the ones that only break through to our awareness when a big event happens, like oil spills or a breached fly ash pond.

    As long as we let society pay the cost of many of these problems, and only (if ever) impose a cost on the companies involved in the form of a law suit after the fact, fossil fuels will continue to have a ridiculous cost advantage over wind, solar, wave, tidal, hydro, and geothermal.

  11. Merle Savage says:

    Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Workers (EVOS) Workers vs. Exxon

    Are these the Actions of Our US Lady Justice?
    Tipping Scales?
    Peeking for Corporate Interest?
    Accepting Bribes?
    Knee Deep in Exxon Oil?
    Allowing Human Life as Exxon’s Collateral Damage?

    To view Lady Justice click on the site below.
    http://www.silenceinthesound.com/valdez-oil-spill-workers-vs-exxon.shtml

    An investigative study is being conducted into the thousands of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) workers’ health issues, and acknowledged as Exxon’s Criminal actions; not just as Exxon’s Collateral Damage.

    Here is the rest of the story: In 1989, while media and public attention focused on the thousands of oil-coated dead seabirds, otters, and other wildlife, little attention was given to the harm done to the EVOS cleanup workers. As workers blasted oiled beaches, with hot seawater from high pressure hoses, they were engulfed in toxic fumes containing aerosolized crude oil—benzene and other volatile compounds, oil mist, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. View photos at: http://www.silenceinthesound.com/gallery.shtml

    It is a major concern that the cleanup workers from the 1989 EVOS are suffering from long-term health problems resulting from toxic chemical exposures. A significant number of the workers have died. Some of the illnesses include neurological impairment, chronic respiratory disease, leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, liver damage, and blood diseases. View stories at: http://www.silenceinthesound.com/stories.shtml

    Dr. Riki Ott has written two books; Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$ and Not One Drop. Dr. Ott has investigated, and studied the oil spill spraying, and quotes numerous reports in her books, on the toxic chemicals that were used during the 1989 Prince William Sound oily beach cleanup.

    The Black Wave, http://www.blackwavethefilm.com (filmed by a Canadian company) is the name of the film that tells the story about Dr. Ott’s investigations and the interviews of sick workers suffering from the toxic chemicals used during the cleanup. The BBC was in Alaska in December 2008 filming for the 20th Anniversary of the oil spill, and interviewed many people.

    Submitted by: Merle Savage, General Foreman during the (EVOS) cleanup attempt of 1989; http://www.silenceinthesound.com email: msavage12@yahoo.com

  12. Tom says:

    The same thing happened with Katrina – your government no longer cares about us, since the corporate sector took over (by means of being given the same rights as real people) and pretty much OWNS the whole process now – from faux voting (like Obama’s really going to be able to change any of this – HAH, he’s protecting BUSH from prosecution!), to the whole “green” movement (it’s basically not going to work), to our nation and world getting out of the next decade in one piece (it’s all going to turn to shit soon climatically so enjoy yourselves and watch the ride to oblivion). Corporations have ruined (poisoned) democracy and capitalism was their weapon.

  13. darwin says:

    dear esteemed conspecifics -

    why all of this wringing of hands? part of your frustration is this desire to freeze-frame the composition of ecosystems and biological assemblages as if these can be rendered unaffected by the inexorable forces of adaptive pressures. as unpalatable as the adaptive pressures resulting from human activity may be they are nonetheless adaptive pressures in response to which some species will be made stronger and others weaker if not (locally) extinct. even in tidal pools with subsurface substances that are toxic to some life forms including cuddly vertebrates, it is certain that whole new biological communities (most likely microbial) will colonize, fully exploit what to them is a rich abundance of a novel resource and thrive! among other human activities, oil consumption is a behavioral phenotype of some human races that we understand creates dire consequences for the environment as we know it. but you can’t have your crumpets and eat them too. if you must bring to the surface gluttonous quantities of fossil fuel from their rightful places deep in the sediment then you must accept the resultant changes in biodiversity without angst or quibbling. in fact, every time you start the engine of your SUV, you have implicitly agreed to this ecological cost. but, you may find peace in knowing that destroying the extant earth environment only creates a different canvas onto which nature is sure to paint an equally appealing biological masterpiece!

    evolutionarily yours,

    charles