Today marks the 26 anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska where nearly 11 million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean over the course of three days. Exxon failed to carry out its pre-approved oil spill response plan because their response barge was “out of service and unavailable for use.” Even if the barge were operational, it lacked enough skimmers and booms to handle the spill. Government officials and local volunteers quickly began spearheading the cleanup. Despite their best efforts to make up for Exxon’s systematic failure, only 14 percent of the spill was removed. This massive spill caused then Governor of Alaska, Steve Cowper, to declare a state of emergency. Oil from the spill can still be found today and some places may be as toxic as they were 26 years ago.
Now, more than two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Arctic Ocean is still threatened by risky oil drilling. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released an analysis that showed a 75 percent chance of at least one major spill if companies were allowed to develop oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast. Rapidly forming sea ice, fog, high winds, extreme cold and lack of infrastructure make it nearly impossible to clean up an oil spill in Arctic waters. Even in the Gulf of Mexico, only 19 percent of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was removed or dispersed.
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Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.
The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?
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Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons
On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.
After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.
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A sea otter swimming near the Exxon Valdez
There was a great deal of excitement in the courtroom across the street from Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf restoration office during BP’s first week at trial. Objection after objection from BP’s legal team have been over ruled by Judge Barbier, a culture of BP putting profit before safety has steadily emerged, and BP has found itself in perhaps one of the world’s largest finger pointing game with Halliburton and Transocean. The trial has allowed everyone the opportunity to begin learning exactly why 11 men died and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank. But as we learn about the past, we must also think about our future.
We know the people of the Gulf Coast and the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Gulf could feel the effects of the BP oil disaster for years, maybe even decades. That’s why it’s critical that however BP settles up , either in or out of court, the resolution of this disaster must keep options open for addressing any damages that may not be discovered until well into the future. One way to do this is to include a reopener clause in any form of a resolution.
A reopener clause is a sweetener to facilitate resolution of the case. It represents an additional sum of money that may be accessed in the future, thus “reopening” the issue, but only if additional injuries not known at the time of the settlement manifest. It has advantages for both sides. With a reopener clause, the federal and state parties can rest assured that if any environmental problems from the spill show up later, the government isn’t left empty handed. The polluter, BP, can seek comfort in the fact that it won’t be held accountable for potential injuries that have yet to be proven or even hypothesized at this time. This may sound logical and simple, but the devil is in the details.
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