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

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.

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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.”