Since a busted oil well began spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico a month ago, the catastrophe has constantly been measured against the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The Alaska spill leaked nearly 11 million gallons of crude, killed countless animals and tarnished the owner of the damaged tanker, Exxon.
Yet 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.
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.
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 on the Pacific. 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.