My Turn: Lesson of Exxon Valdez: Don't trust oil industry safety assurances

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Monday, March 24, and the nation debates the future of Arctic offshore drilling, tar sands and oil-shale pipelines, and energy policy, it’s important to recall the history of previous industry promises made, and promises broken.


The traditional oil spill narrative from industry and government is that the risk of a catastrophic spill is small, government oversight will be rigorous, any spill will be promptly cleaned up, and environmental harm would be minimal and short-term. But history tells a different story.

Seeking approval to build the Trans Alaska Pipeline in the early 1970s, industry and government promised that oil would be shipped safely from Alaska, and “not one drop” would be spilled. There would be double-hulled tankers, a fail-safe tanker tracking system, state-of-the-art spill response capability, and government would keep a watchful eye on everything. Soon after approval was granted, all these promises were abandoned.

On March 24, 1989, the single-hulled Exxon Valdez grounded in Prince William Sound, causing at the time the nation’s worst oil spill. Millions of gallons of oil spread across Alaska’s coastal ocean, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline, and killing millions of seabirds, marine mammals, fish and other organisms. An Alaska Native elder referred to the spill as “the day the water died.” So much for “not one drop.”

Twenty-five years later, the injured environment has still not fully recovered. In fact, only 13 of the 32 fish and wildlife populations, habitats, and resource services monitored by the government are listed today as “recovered” or “very likely recovered.” Some, such as herring, pigeon guillemots, and the AT1 killer whale pod, are still listed as “not recovering.”

The AT1 killer whale pod declined after the spill from 22 to just 7 individuals, and has not had a new calf since. The government concludes that, for this unique group of whales, “there appears to be no hope for recovery,” and the population “will likely become extinct.”

There are still thousands of gallons of Exxon Valdez oil in beach sediments, which the government says is “nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill,” and will take “decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.”

Government litigation with Exxon remains unresolved, as Exxon refuses to pay the government’s final $92 million claim presented in 2006 for unanticipated ecological damage, making this now the longest-lasting environmental litigation in history. So much for “short-term effects.”

Fast-forward to November 19, 2009, just five months prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, when representatives of the oil industry and government regulators assured the U.S. Congress that offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was perfectly safe, and the existing regulatory regime was sufficient. Based on such assurances, President Obama announced an expansion of offshore drilling, declaring that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” Three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, causing the largest accidental oil spill in history.

And with the rush to drill in the Arctic Ocean, we hear the same old empty promises. In 2012, Shell’s Arctic offshore drilling projects were some of the most intensely scrutinized in history, and they promised all would be well. Instead, they had a string of calamitous mishaps, ending with one drilling rig grounded, both rigs not fit for service, and more broken promises.

Hoping for the best and rolling the dice with oil spill risks on our nation’s seas and coasts is no longer acceptable public policy.

If we care about a coastal or marine area, such as Bristol Bay or the Arctic Ocean, we should not expose it to the risk of oil development - period. Spills will occur, they can’t be cleaned up, they can cause long-term damage, and restoration is impossible. Where we do continue to produce and transport oil, it should be done with the highest possible safety standards, regardless of cost. And above all, we urgently need to kick our hydrocarbon habit, and transition to an efficient, low-carbon, sustainable energy economy.

• Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, stationed in the Arctic and Prince William Sound. Today he advises on oil and environment issues, though Oasis Earth (, based in Anchorage.


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