Activists and representatives from five environmental organizations held a rally outside of the White House Tuesday on the 26th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. In addition to commemorating the spill, those at the rally urged President Obama to keep the Arctic off-limits from drilling, even as the Department of the Interior is expected to allow Shell to go forward with plans for drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer.
“History now proves that threats posed by the oil industry to remote, biologically rich regions are simply unacceptable. We need to learn from the history of the Exxon Valdez and not repeat it,” said David Scott, president of the Sierra Club, which organized the rally along with Alaska Wilderness League, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and World Wildlife Fund. “Today, the oil industry wants to go into a place that’s far more remote, far more treacherous, and just as fragile and vulnerable as Prince William Sound, the Arctic Ocean. It would be crazy to let them do it.”
Twenty-six years ago, a little after midnight, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The collision ruptured eight of the ship’s 11 cargo tanks, and within three hours and fifteen minutes, 5.8 million gallons of crude oil had gushed into the waters of the Alaskan Gulf. In all, the Exxon Valdez disaster spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil — roughly equal to 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools — and polluted more than 1,300 miles of shoreline. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history until it was dwarfed by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill 11 years later. In the Prince William Sound — and along its coastline — the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill remain, as lingering injuries continue to plague wildlife populations and traces of oil remain along stretches of the Alaskan shore. Despite promises of a state-of-the-art spill response, cleanup crews managed to recover only 14 percent of the spilled oil.
The spill spurred passage of the Oil Pollution Act, which barred any ship that had spilled 1 million or more gallons of oil from operating in the Prince William Sound. Passed in 1990, the act prohibited some 18 vessels from operating in the Sound through 2008, according to an article in the New York Times. But by 2010, focus had shifted from vessels to drilling rigs. In a speech in early April, President Obama announced an expansion of offshore drilling regulations, noting that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” Eighteen days later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, spilling 168 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, Obama withdrew his proposal for expanded offshore drilling.
But this year, his administration is trying again, with a new plan that would open up tracts of Atlantic and Alaskan waters to drilling. And later this week, the Obama administration is expected to give Shell the final green-light for drilling in the Arctic, despite an Environmental Impact Report released by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) that noted a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills occurring under the current plan.
That figure was cited often by representatives of environmental organizations at the rally, who voiced concern that the remoteness of the Arctic drilling sites would magnify the consequences of a potential spill.
“It’s an important time to remind the Obama administration that we cannot afford another oil disaster like the Exxon Valdez,” Marissa Knodel of Friends of the Earth told ThinkProgress. “It’s complete hypocrisy if the Obama administration is serious about leaving good climate legacy as he said.”
For Inupiaq artist Allison Akootchook Warden, who spoke at the rally, opening the Arctic to Shell threatens her very way of life. Some 13,500 Inupiaq still live in Alaska, where they subsist on the land and sea along the state’s northern coasts.
“We have a spiritual relationship to the animals — the whale, the walrus, the seal. The whale is actually the center of our whole culture,” Warden told ThinkProgress. “If we didn’t have the whale, our culture would die. It doesn’t have to be that way.”