BP had central role in the Exxon Valdez disaster

The AP drops this bombshell today about the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster:

the leader of botched containment efforts  in the critical hours after the tanker ran aground wasn’t Exxon Mobil Corp. It was BP PLC, the same firm now fighting to plug the Gulf leak.

Pretty scary, when you consider that BP’s undersea volcano of oil is spewing some 2 Exxon Valdezes a week or more.  That said, it bears repeating what 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard Dr. Robert Brulle has written:  “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”

Here’s more from AP:

BP owned a controlling interest in the Alaska oil industry consortium that was required to write a cleanup plan and respond to the spill two decades ago. It also supplied the top executive of the consortium, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. Lawsuits and investigations that followed the Valdez disaster blamed both Exxon and Alyeska for a response that was bungled on many levels.

People who had a front row seat to the Alaska spill tell The Associated Press that BP’s actions in the Gulf suggest it hasn’t changed much at all.

The Gulf leak has grown to at least 6 million gallons since an oil rig exploded April 20, killing 11, and is almost certain to overtake Valdez as the nation’s worst oil spill.

“Gallons” is an AP correction from barrels but it is an uber-lowball number (see Expert: Based on video, BP undersea volcano spewing 3 million gallons a day “” two Exxon Valdezes a week)

Watching the current crisis is like reliving the Valdez disaster for an attorney who headed the legal team for the state-appointed Alaska Oil Spill Commission that investigated the 1989 spill.

“I feel this horrible, sickening feeling,” said Zygmunt Plater, who now teaches law at Boston College.

The Alaska spill occurred just after midnight on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker carrying more than 50 million gallons of crude hit a reef after deviating from shipping lanes at the Valdez oil terminal. Years of cost cutting and poor planning led to staggering delays in response over the next five hours, according to the state commission’s report.

What could have been an oil spill covering a few acres became one that stretched 1,100 miles, said Walter Parker, the commission’s chairman.

“They were not prepared to respond at all,” Parker said, referring to Alyeska. “They did not have a trained team … The equipment was buried under several feet of snow.”

The commission’s report dedicated an entire chapter to failures by Alyeska, which was formed by the oil companies to run a pipeline stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the Valdez terminal. BP had the biggest stake in the consortium and essentially ran the first days of containment efforts in Prince William Sound an inlet on the south coast of Alaska.

“What happened in Alaska was determined by decisions coming from (BP in) Houston,” Plater said.

Alyeska officials were notified within minutes of the Valdez spill, but it took seven hours for the consortium to get its first helicopter in the air with a Coast Guard investigator. A barge that was supposed to be carrying containment equipment had to be reloaded and did not arrive on the scene until 12 hours after the spill.

During the spill, Alyeska only had enough booms to surround a single tanker. The few skimmers it had to scoop up oil were out of commission once they filled up because no tank barge was available to handle recovered oil.

“Exxon quickly realized Alyeska was not responding, so 24 hours into the spill Exxon without consultation said, ‘We’re taking it over,'” said Dennis Kelso, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “That was not necessarily a bad thing.”

BP’s role in the Valdez spill has been far less publicized than Exxon’s, in part because the state commission wanted to stay focused and avoid fingerpointing by saying who ran Alyeska in its report. Plater said he now regrets that approach.

“In retrospect, it could’ve focused attention on BP and created transparency which would’ve changed the internal culture,” he said. “As we see the internal culture appears not to have changed with tragic results.”

According to Alyeska, BP owned a controlling 50.01 percent share in the consortium in 1989, while a half-dozen other oil companies had smaller stakes. Since then, BP’s share in Alyeska has dropped to 46.9 percent, with the next highest owner Conoco-Phillips Inc. at 28.3 percent. The consortium works like a corporation with owners voting based on their percentage shares.

Alyeska’s chief executive officer was in 1989, and is currently, a BP employee who’s on the company payroll, said Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan.

BP spokesman Robert Wine declined by e-mail to comment on the company’s role in the Valdez spill, saying the incident was already examined thoroughly.

“We can’t add to something that has been so thoroughly and publicly investigated in the past, and the results of which have been so robustly and effectively implemented,” he said.

Many who observed both disasters say there are striking parallels.

For example, during BP’s permit process for the Deepwater Horizon, the company apparently predicted a catastrophic spill was unlikely and if it were to happen, the company had the best technology available. Prior to the 1989 spill, Alyeska made a similar case, arguing that such a spill was unlikely and would be “further reduced because the majority of the tankers … are of American registry and all of these are piloted by licensed masters or pilots.”

Critics say the tools in both spills have been largely the same, as has BP’s lack of preparedness. Then as now, the cleanup tools used across the industry are booms, skimmers and dispersants.

David Pettit, who helped represent Exxon after the Alaska spill, said he knew BP was the “main player in Alyeska” even though everyone at the time was more focused on Exxon’s role.

“This is the same company that was drilling in 5,000 feet of water in 2010 knowing that what they had promised … was no more likely to do any good now than it did in 1989,” said Pettit, now a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s the same cleanup techniques.”

For the Gulf spill, a 100-ton containment box had to be built from scratch and wasn’t deployed until two weeks after the spill, leading some to question why such emergency measures weren’t ready to begin with.

“If you’ve told the government there’s not a serious risk of a major spill, why should you spend shareholder money building a 100-ton steel box you’ve publicly claimed you don’t think you’ll ever use?” said Pettit.

Precisely (see BP calls blowout disaster ‘inconceivable,’ ‘unprecedented,’ and unforeseeable).

21 Responses to BP had central role in the Exxon Valdez disaster

  1. catman306 says:

    The nationwide boycott of BP brands (BP, Castrol, Arco, am/pm/ stores, Wild Bean Cafe, and Aral) must be doing something: (The free market at work, Baby!)

    Perhaps the station owners could stencil a red circle with a slash over all the BP logos.

    BP Station owners worried (Georgia Public Radio)

  2. Michael Tucker says:

    The technology to remove oil from seawater has not changed or improved since Exxon Valdez. As explained on Rachel Maddow last night, THE ONLY TECHNIQUE THAT HAS EVER WORKED FOR DEEP WATER BLOWOUTS IS DRILLING A RELIEF WELL. So, maybe by August, if we have few weather delays, they can shut down the oil geyser.

    We may get lucky. The top kill method may work and make history (first time ever at this depth). All the other methods that have been tried have only worked at relatively shallow depths. The containment box did not work. They were, and still are, grasping at straws. The top kill straw could work if the BOP can handle the pressure. We should find out by the end of today if they can go ahead with the top kill.

  3. Karen S. says:

    Two definitions for Ecocide:
    1. Destruction or damage of the environment; especially intentionally; for example, by herbicides in war.
    2. Heedless or deliberate destruction of the natural environment, as by pollutants or an act of war.

    Corporations were recently granted by the US Supreme Court the legal right to spend unlimited money on election campaign ads under the guise that corporations are “citizens.” If they are now “citizens,” then their responsibilities as such are the same as yours and mine. If you and I did what Citizen BP has done, do you think we’d get away with it? The EPA issued a warning to BP to use a less toxic dispersant. BP’s reply (politely worded) was: Stuff it. BP’s Tony Hayward makes Joe Hazlewood look like Mother Teresa. Would it be too radical for us to consider reckless or careless behavior such as that exhibited by BP to be an act of war against the environment?

  4. Raul says:

    A university experiment released to the public showed
    methane hydrates forming in a glass container at depth
    and pressure from methane gas escaping from a fissure
    of the ocean floor. It formed spontaniously?
    Seems bells, whistles, and alarms are needed for computer
    data entries as relates to operationel methods.

  5. catman306 says:

    Over at Grist, Randy Rieland has written about

    ‘There is one other option out there, a dark option that BP wants nothing to do with. Nuclear weapons. Hey, we’re serious here, people! The Soviet Union has used nukes four times in the past to cap leaking oil and gas wells. Sure it sounds crazy, but according to Russian writer Vladimir Lagovsky, the explosion “compresses the rock and squeezes the channel shut.” ‘

    I was wondering if the Russians set off their nukes a mile underwater? Nuking it shut doesn’t sound like such a good idea and what do we do if it doesn’t work? What if it fractures the sea floor and oil comes up in dozens of places? What if the sea floor ruptures and ALL the oil comes up at once? What do experts say?

  6. Chris Winter says:

    OT: Joe, you need to remove the “/print” from that Yahoo link at the top of the article.

  7. Karen S. says:

    One more thing–I just could not resist. We may all be in violent agreement on this:

    But wow, talk about poisoning the well…

  8. Chris Dudley says:


    The London Dumping Convention prohibit disposing if nuclear waste at see so using a nuke in that way would be illegal.

  9. Micki says:

    I wouldn’t call AP’s report a “bombshell” given that Greg Palast reported much of the same information weeks ago both at his website and at some online news sites.

    Nevertheless, I’m glad to see that more widely distributed and read outlets are covering BP’s involvement in the ExxonValdez fiasco.

  10. mike roddy says:

    The initials are Beyond Petroleum? How about Bad Polluters?

  11. catman306 says:

    BP to cut live feed before ‘top kill’ attempt. What government do we pay taxes to? Corporatism sucks.

  12. Wonhyo says:

    I’m not sure if you can read this link without registering, but an article appears in today’s Los Angeles Times, headlined, “Oil companies have a rich history of U.S. subsidies”: news/ nationworld/ nation/ la-na-oil-spill-subsidies-20100525,0,1705123.story

    It says oil companies got to waive many royalties when oil prices were low, but many of these waivers remained in effect even as oil prices skyrocketed. The oil companies even sued the federal government (successfully!) to have some past royalty payments refunded. Technology research and development for deepwater oil drilling (specifically in the Gulf of Mexico) was subsidized by the government when oil prices were too low for such investments to make sense on their own.

    This turns the whole “it’s against free market principles to subsidize clean power” argument on its head.

    How in the world do Americans tolerate free handouts from taxpayers to oil companies to do dangerous things at public expense, while pocketing profits privately? How do we live with ourselves knowing that we send Americans to the Middle East to protect our oil interests, while we fund the enemy they are fighting? Do Americans realize that more Americans have died protecting our oil interests than have died in the original 9/11 attacks? Why are we not rising up in protest?

    This is absolutely sickening.

  13. Apparently the only tested method to stop the gusher is a relief well, which won’t be completed until August at best. I heard on TV that Canada requires that a relief well be dug at the same time as the main well. It seems an obvious precaution, but as we’re seeing from reporting today, the oil companies owned U.S.regulators, especially under Bush-Cheney.

  14. lizardo says:

    Yes, I too read Greg Palast’s piece about how it was BP’s fraudulent response resources for Prince Rupert Sound, resources that existed on paper but not on hand, that made the EV spill so much worse, yet all the egg/mud/oil was on Exxon’s face and not BP at the time, at least here in the lower 48. (Thought I had posted a link here, but maybe not…)

    But AP reaches a lot more people than!!!!

    Re cutting live feed: The feed is coming from the remotely operated vehicles working down there and it’s likely that their cameras are needed for the work, could get covered in oil, etc. so this bit doesn’t worry me. I’m not ready to be paranoid until the people who do this stuff and understand it are paranoid (and believe me they are furious with BP beyond belief).

    As for the nukes, I thought those had been used to put out intense oil well and gas well FIRES on land. Those can be too intense to get near to mud/cement the well with a top kill like this. If you have seen any video/photos of the fire before the DWH rig sank it was a huge fire and very intense re both size and heat generated.

    I’m concerned that a small nuke would create more problems than it would solve, and I have yet to hear anyone here suggest it who has experience with deep water drilling.

  15. lizardo says:

    Correction: I meant to write (re small nuke) “I have yet to hear anyone suggest it who has experience with deep water drilling.” I don’t know that anyone with such experience is posting/commenting “here”. That was a homonynm/editing typo. In no way a snark.

  16. Aaron Lewis says:

    re 15: I was on the Bechtel Team in 1991 putting out the Kuwait oil fires after Operation Desert Storm. Some of those were fairly big oil fires and Red Adair’s group used chemical explosives to blow them out. Red said that they had put out bigger fires using the same technology.

  17. lizardo says:

    Re catman306 comment #12 re BP to cut live feed. I stand corrected, re paranoia not warranted, apparently coast guard Adm Thad Allen had a little chat with BP, and now there is to be live ROV feed, but BP says procedure could take two days and visuals could be messy.

    (I heard about live feed from BBC world news tonight so logged onto BP’s site…)

    And to Aaron Lewis at 17. So there are people here who know oil well stuff. Good. I’m standing so corrected tonight my mother would be so proud of my posture, for once.

  18. DavidCOG says:

    The other oil companies must be thinking Christmas arrived early for them with so many commentators turning the Gulf oil apocalypse in to the BP oil apocalypse, and making a scapegoat out of BP for the Exxon Valdez now!

    Fortunately, some have not lost sight that BP is little different to the other oil giants:

  19. Micki says:

    @ #15 Yes, I too read Greg Palast’s piece about how it was BP’s fraudulent response resources for Prince Rupert Sound,

    I think you mean Prince William Sound…

  20. lizardo says:

    Oops. Thanks