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Promises Broken by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, 25 Years Later

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on March 24, recall the history of previous industry promises made and broken

Richard Steiner

 by The Seattle Times

Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989

AS we mark the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on March 24, recall the history of previous industry promises made and broken. That troubled past should help inform the future of energy policy for Arctic offshore drilling, tar-sands and oil-shale pipelines.

The typical oil-spill message 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 will be minimal and short-term.

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. The public and environment would be protected by double-hulled tankers, a fail-safe tanker-tracking system, state-of-the-art spill-response capability and the watchful eye of government. Soon after approval was granted, all these promises were abandoned.

On March 24, 1989, the single-hulled tanker 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 resources monitored by the government are listed today as “recovered” or “very likely recovered.” Some, such as herring, pigeon guillemots and the AT1 orca whale pod, are still listed as “not recovering.”

The AT1 orca pod declined after the spill from 22 to just 7 whales, and has yet to birth a new calf. 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 Valdez oil in beach sediments, which the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council representing state and federal governments 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, now Exxon Mobil, remains unresolved as the company 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.

Five months before the 2009 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, representatives of the oil industry and government regulators assured 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 now, with the rush to drill in the Arctic Ocean and to build new tar-sands and oil-shale pipelines and terminals, we hear the same old empty promises. Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling fiasco, in which one drilling rig ran aground and both rigs were deemed unfit for service, shows the same pattern of betrayed promises.

Clearly, hoping for the best and rolling the dice is no longer acceptable.

If we care about a coastal area, we should not expose it to the risk of oil development. 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. We need to use oil much more efficiently and stop wasting it.

Above all, we urgently need to kick our hydrocarbon habit and transition to a sustainable society.


© 2021 The Seattle Times

Richard Steiner

Richard Steiner was a marine professor with the University of Alaska from 1980 to 2010, stationed in the Arctic and Prince William Sound. He advises on oil and environment through Oasis Earth.

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