Exxon Valdez and the safety of oil exploration

Three weeks before the Gulf of Mexico spill began on April 20, President Obama announced that his administration would open protected waters off the Atlantic seaboard and Alaska coast to oil exploration. A few days after the spill, Obama reversed course and issued a moratorium on offshore drilling.

Leading up to the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the Bush administration similarly called for easing restrictions on drilling in environmentally protected areas, most notably in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Following the oil spill then, The Times' editorial board questioned the wisdom of opening these areas to oil exploration. Below is a selection of editorials that were published in the weeks following the 1989 oil spill.

March 30, 1989:

What Went Wrong?

The 240,000 barrels of crude oil that have spewed from the ruptured hull of the tanker Exxon Valdez since it ran aground Friday have blackened more than the pristine waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound.

They also have sullied the credibility of Exxon Co. U.S.A, which owns the vessel, of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which manages the trans-Alaskan pipeline and of the state and federal officials whose responsibility it is to see that these private firms operate in a responsible manner.

This is a harsh judgment, but the facts of this shocking and unnecessary environmental catastrophe make no other possible. These facts also make it mandatory that Congress take a rigorous and skeptical look at the Bush Administration's claim that oil drilling can be expanded into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without unacceptable consequences.

While the tardy and inexcusably chaotic cleanup of the worst oil spill ever to foul American waters proceeds, vexing questions demand answers:

--Why were the vessel's master, who has a history alcohol abuse, and two senior officers absent from the bridge when it strayed out of the shipping channel? Why was an unqualifiedthird mate piloting the ship?

--Why did Exxon officials fail so miserably in their responsibility to have an effective contingency cleanup plan in place? Why didn't they have the requisite equipment on site? Why did the company's officials move so slowly to contain the spill, thereby squandering the initial two days of good weather that might have made a quick cleanup feasible?.

--Why did Alyeska rebuff earlier offers by Valdez city officials to stockpile cleanup equipment, assuring the local leaders--falsely, as it now turns out--that the oil companies had adequate supplies on hand?

--Why did the Alaskan state government, which has the primary responsibility for legal oversight of these matters, fail to exercise it?

--Why has the Bush Administration been so slow to intervene into what was from the first day obviously a major environmental crisis?

In fact, the President waited until Tuesday before sending senior aides to the scene of the spill, and even then seemed to express doubts that the federal government ought to take a major role in the cleanup. Bush's approach to this disaster is perplexing.

April 4, 1989:

There Was No Excuse

The crude oil clotting the shores of Alaska's Prince William Sound mocks Washington's oft-made promise that oil development on federal lands and in federal waters will be conducted only in an "environmentally sound" manner. As late as Monday, Secretary of the Interior Manuel J. Lujan was vowing that the Bush Administration would forge ahead with exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope in an "environmentally sound" manner.

The fact that 8,548 tankers had successfully negotiated Prince William Sound in the past decade to load up at the port of Valdez lulled too many people into believing that the operation was so environmentally sound that it was immune from accident. The 8,549th tanker proved otherwise. The nation now demands a new definition of "environmentally sound."

The Exxon Valdez did not become an environmental disaster just because the ship's captain may have been drunk and absent from the bridge. This was not a simple traffic accident. Veteran observers of the trans-Alaska pipeline system from its inception had said that if ever there was to be a serious accident, Prince William Sound was a likely site.

There was no excuse, then, for cutbacks in the U.S. Coast Guard budget that made it impossible to fully monitor the movement of tankers in and out of the sound. There was no excuse for the failure to have adequate oil-spill equipment on hand in Valdez, and the trained personnel to use it immediately. There was no excuse for the failure to ring the ruptured Exxon Valdez with containment booms within the five hours that had been promised by the oil industry's accident contingency plan (It took a day and a half). There was no excuse for assuming that the worst likely spill would involve 200,000 barrels of oil or less. The Exxon Valdez hemorrhaged 240,000 barrels of Alaska crude and, but for luck, might have lost even more of its 1.2-million-barrel load.

In his address to oil company officials, Interior Secretary Lujan said Monday: "If the image of an uncareful and uncaring industry prevails among the U.S. public, then we can kiss goodby the domestic oil and gas development in the (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), off shore and in the public lands." But Lujan has it wrong. These are public lands and the first responsibility for seeing that development is conducted in an "environmentally sound" manner is that of the federal government. Rather, the government has been too much of a willing partner in exploiting them.

The federal government cannot assume that the oil companies will follow every environmental stricture on their own. It must see that they do. The federal government cannot count on the companies maintaining adequate equipment and personnel to use in the event of a spill. It must insist on it, and inspect and test the gear frequently. The federal government cannot take for granted that the oil companies will react with alacrity when a disaster is in progress. It must be the primary watchdog and take control. These decisions involve the public's land, the public's waters, the public's wilderness shorelines, the public's fish, the public's waterfowl, the public's marine mammals. The public's interest must be protected and that can only be achieved by the public's representatives.

President Bush, echoing the oil companies, insists there is no connection between the Exxon Valdez and drilling the Arctic wildlife preserve. But physically, there is only one way to get the oil out and that is through Prince William Sound. Since Good Friday, the two are linked environmentally and politically. The Reagan and Bush administrations have conducted only the most superficial and optimistic of environmental assessments of the impact of drilling on the Arctic refuge, while promising that this industrial enterprise in the wilderness will be achieved in an "environmentally sound" manner. Since good Friday, those words are hollow ones. A skeptical nation will demand a new definition.

April 15, 1989:

The Oil Connections

As Ronald Reagan used to say about recalcitrant members of Congress, "If they don't see the light, make them feel the heat." Well, the Exxon Valdez accident has put considerable heat on the Bush Administration and its avid support for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr., acknowledging the mood of Congress, said there is no chance of Congress passing a bill this year to open up the refuge to the oil industry.

Now it is time for the Administration to see the light and also declare that there will be no oil drilling off the coast of Northern California at least for the duration of George Bush's tenure in office. The Administration also should delay other proposed oil lease sales along the California coast until the federal government has conducted a thorough review and revision of regulations governing oil- spill containment and cleanup.

The oil industry and top Bush Administration officials have insisted that there was no connection between the Exxon Valdez crude-oil spill and proposed drilling in the wildlife preserve about 100 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, the giant oil development on the Alaskan coast of the Arctic Ocean. But any oil found in the wildlife refuge can get to market by only one route--via a new pipeline over to Prudhoe Bay, down through the trans-Alaska pipeline to the port of Valdez and then by tanker through Prince William Sound to refineries on the West Coast. That seems a tight enough connection.

Even the oil industry's most influential allies in Congress have given up hope of legislation this year to explore in the refuge. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and sponsor of a refuge drilling bill, commented: "It is not only politically foolish to push legislation now, it's foolish from a policy point of view."

On the House side, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) returned from three days in Alaska to declare that the accident was "the tragic result of a systematic assault by the oil industry that rendered ineffective the entire system of regulatory safeguards." Miller, whose subcommittee oversees the Arctic refuge, said there must be a strong authority established to exercise control over accident cleanups. Indeed there must be.

As with the refuge, the Bush Administration might not see any relationship between the Exxon Valdez and drilling off the Northern California coast. But the connection is very real, linked by the federal government's eagerness to accommodate the oil companies. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Los Angeles) and other California officials have disclosed warnings from federal experts about the potential dangers of drilling off the spectacular Northern California coast. The warnings had been either altered or suppressed altogether within the Department of the Interior.

In one memo, officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the Interior Department's oil leasing agency had "inaccurately painted a picture of a routine operation with few potential impacts when in fact offshore development in Northern California and the proposed tanker traffic is a high-risk operation in rough seas, in a geologically unstable area, with potentially devastating impacts on coastal resources." That comment had been deleted from the version of the memo made public. Also censored was the statement that current technology was not capable of cleaning up a spill in the North Coast area.

It's time to see the light: Drilling, pumping or transporting oil in a wilderness environment must never again be considered routine.