By Sarah Sax
Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez — an oil tanker carrying 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil — hit a reef in the Gulf of Alaska, ripping half a dozen holes in the hull of the ship. More than 11 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the pristine waters and vibrant ecosystem of Prince William Sound, coating more than 700 miles of coastline down the Alaska Peninsula with a thick film of oil and killing a quarter of a million seabirds, thousands of otters, and hundreds of seals and bald eagles. Even today, a small portion of crude oil still remains just out of sight below the surface of the water in parts of Alaska impacted by the spill.
That was 30 years ago. Mention “oil extraction” and “disaster” today, and the images evoke a more global and destructive force: people swimming in the Fountain of Warsaw in Paris during unprecedented heat waves; Typhoon Haiyan laying waste to entire islands, coating them with the shards of more than 1 million homes; Hurricane Harvey dumping a deluge of water on downtown Houston, creating rivers where highways once were and leaving families stranded on their roofs; crippling drought in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, scorching crops, killing livestock, and bringing millions of people over the brink to famine. These are the scenes of climate change, unfolding before our eyes. Increasing levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases may be invisible to the eye, but we know their impacts are not.
The public response to Exxon Valdez suggests that the degree of a disaster’s visibility — and how its victims are perceived — are important factors in challenging regulatory regimes and shifting policy.
“The visuals were very dramatic of birds and killer whales all covered in oil, the pictures were horrific,” says Athan Manuel, the director of the Lands Protection Program for Sierra Club. “Prince William Sound was an incredibly vibrant ecosystem. It was a sound — a bay — so it was kind of contained. It’s a very vivid and toxic legacy that they left.”
The Exxon Valdez spill, unprecedented in its time, galvanized public opinion around oil drilling in the Arctic and environmental and safety regulations of oil transportation in general. Most famously, the spill is credited with leading to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which required the Coast Guard to strengthen its regulations on oil tankers and oil tanker owners and operators.
A 1997 Pew Center study found the spill ranked among the top 20 news stories of its decade. For an entire generation, the images of seabirds covered in black slicks and rescue workers power-washing boulders became iconic images for the dangers of oil production at large.
“Some have called it our Chernobyl in terms of an awakening,” Bruce Manheim, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., said a year after the spill.
Worldwide, large spills from tankers (defined as being more than 5,000 barrels or 210,000 gallons) have gone down significantly, even as the production of oil has increased. In no small part, this is due to increased safety regulation, such as the phasing out of single-hulled oil tankers like the Exxon Valdez. According to statistics from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, the years 2010–2018 saw on average 1.9 spills per year, a significant reduction from previous decades, such as 1970–1979 and 1980–1989, which saw on average 24.5 and 9.4 large spills per year, respectively. Large spills connected to offshore drilling — like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon that leaked around 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — have also generally trended downward in the United States, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Exxon Valdez made visible the immediate environmental risks associated with fossil fuel extraction. Today, decades later, the long-term climate impacts from decades of fossil fuel extraction have gained center stage as the issue becomes a more pressing — and visible — concern.
“I think climate awareness was low at the point of Exxon Valdez,” says Richard Heede, co-director of the nonprofit Climate Accountability Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. “The spill was a solvable problem. But there wasn’t a bridge to climate change.”
The foundations for that bridge were in the works. Climate change had already begun to surface as a critical topic; less than a year before the spill, James Hansen delivered his congressional testimony on climate change, stating, “Global warming has begun.” One year after the spill, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its First Assessment Report, concluding that yes, humans were causing climate change, but that they likely wouldn’t start seeing the impacts for a decade.
Greenpeace, the NGO that seeks to “investigate, expose and confront environmental abuse by governments and corporations around the world,” was one of the first organizations to specifically emphasize the double risk of corporate fossil fuel extraction and climate change. Their 1997 “The Carbon Logic” report drew attention to the risk of burning all the carbon in existing fossil fuel reserves owned by companies. They cautioned, “Failure by governments to act now to curtail market expectations of future fossil fuel demand can only impose higher political and economic costs on future generations’ attempts to constrain the amounts of fossil fuels exploited in order to protect the climate system.”
More than two decades after the spill, the IPCC released its groundbreaking “Extreme Weather and Climate Change” report and Carbon Tracker published its 2011 analysis “Unburnable Carbon.” The latter report put a number on our remaining carbon budget — 565 gigatons of CO2 — if the planet is to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming. In contrast, it’s been calculated that if we were to burn all the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments, it would equate to 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times our estimated carbon budget.
Recent investigations have added another dimension to this. In 2015, the same year 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal global climate agreement, InsideClimate News published its investigation showing that, at the same time millions of gallons of oil were pouring out from Exxon Valdez in Alaska, top executives at Exxon knew about the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, and had started pouring millions of dollars into fostering doubt about its scientific basis and its effects.
Today, Exxon’s website states, “We believe that climate change risks warrant action and it’s going to take all of us…to make meaningful progress.” Indeed, oil companies are now part of the chorus of voices in the business world calling for action on climate. Their business model, however, still presents a problem.
“It’s still the case that the biggest threat to climate change is the capital investment in fossil fuels,” says Heede, who co-authored a more recent study that estimates that production of all the oil and gas in the reserves of the 70 companies that own 63 percent of oil and gas supplies would increase our carbon budget by 160 percent. “As it stands now, climate change might be mitigated, but it won’t be solved. The current generation, myself included haven’t been doing enough. I’m hopeful for Greta Thunberg and the awakening of the youth, but we are in for a scary ride.”
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish teenager who started striking for the climate outside the Swedish Parliament, has become one of the most prominent faces of the youth movement to demand more action on climate change.
Today’s youth might not regard Exxon Valdez the same way older generations do. In 2010, the spill was topped by the Deepwater Horizon disaster — an offshore rig that suffered an uncontrollable well blowout and multiple explosions, killing 11 people and leaking 134 million gallons of oil over three months. Aside from the initial explosion, much of the impact wasn’t visible from the air.
What has become more visible over time, though, are the impacts of climate change: bleaching coral reefs, hurricanes made more deadly and devastating, 500-year floods twice in a decade, and sea-level rise. This is galvanizing groups such as the climate strike movement popularized by Greta Thunberg, Sunrise Movement, and The Zero Hour movement. Those who have grown up with the visible impacts of climate change are challenging current regulatory regimes and demanding the adoption of policies, like the Green New Deal, that stand up to the threat climate change poses.
“Both of us watched on TV as floodwaters engulfed local streets and schools, destroying homes and cars just a few miles away from us,” Zero Hour organizers Kallan Benson and Claire Wayner described in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. “Unfortunately, this wasn’t news to us — flooding like this from ‘hundred-year’ and ‘thousand-year’ storms has struck our home state several times in the past decade… what will it take for everyone to finally recognize and address the root cause — climate change — behind this flooding?”
At the same time the Exxon Valdez oil spill was drawing attention to the environmental impacts of short-term oil extraction; the largely invisible impacts of long-term fossil fuel extraction were beginning to surface. Thirty years later, awareness has flipped. While oil spills still punctuate our news feed, the visible impacts of climate change have risen dramatically. The wreck of the Exxon Valdez might have gone down in history as one of the most visible and iconic environmental disasters for an entire generation, but unfortunately for us, the full impact of the global climate disaster is much scarier and much less likely to go away.