The big Alaska oil spill has become a rallying point for environmentalists across the nation and shapes up as a major setback for the oil industry’s long-running effort to persuade the public that oil and the environment are compatible.
The massive leak from an Exxon tanker could quickly trigger a legislative reaction as environmental groups, decrying the damage to wildfowl and marine life, move to galvanize public opinion against the proposed expansion of Alaska oil production now pending in Congress.
Oilmen sought to portray the incident as a maritime episode and said a response that led to further bans on U.S. oil exploration would mean still greater reliance on environmentally risky tankers--especially from the Middle East--for the nation’s oil.
But oil officials and environmentalists alike recalled the dramatic impact that the far-smaller Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 had on the public debate over the environment, and said the latest incident could prove to be the same kind of watershed event.
The political response is likely to gain impetus from what is already a resurgence of environmental concerns, including the contribution of fossil fuels to air pollution and to the phenomenon of global warming.
“When Casey struck out, nobody remembered him batting .555 before that,” said one oil executive who asked to remain anonymous. “I think it’s going to be a terrific setback across the board, not just for the oil industry, but all industry that have environmental problems.”
The first congressional investigation was announced Monday by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Interior subcommittee on water, power and offshore energy, who dispatched a staff investigator to Valdez and promised hearings in Alaska soon.
Miller said the inquiry will explore the cause of the spill and the adequacy of standby equipment to quickly contain such spills. But he said the accident also has major ramifications for the proposed exploration for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
“Obviously, the tanker spill and the inadequacy of the cleanup effort could have serious implications for the expansion of the North Slope oil development,” Miller said.
The oil industry wants to search for oil along the coastal plain of the wildlife refuge in the northeast corner of the state, about 100 miles east of the current oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. The region has been identified by the U.S. Department of the Interior as the nation’s best remaining hope for a major oil discovery, and President Bush has urged Congress to permit exploration and development.
Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner are scheduled to brief Bush this morning on the Alaska spill. But sources said they do not expect the Administration to change its position in favor of opening the wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
In what was already a major legislative struggle, the Senate Energy Committee two weeks ago approved a bill permitting exploration in the region. But environmental groups have prevailed in the past, and seized on the Exxon spill as powerful new ammunition for their cause.
Robert Hattoy, a California-based Sierra Club director, said the organization plans to use photographs from the spill in its lobbying efforts to prevent more oil exploration in Alaska and to pass another moratorium on oil drilling off California’s coast.
“Obviously, any time there is a disaster or environmental destruction, it’s an important tool. . . " Hattoy said. “I’m sure we’ll use the facts and pictures and finding from Valdez as tools in our lobbying efforts. We still use the films of the oil spills in Santa Barbara that took place in 1969.”
Industry officials have since boasted about their environmental record after the construction of the 800-mile oil pipeline in Alaska in 1973, and in handling and drilling for oil elsewhere. Although environmental groups argue that the industry’s performance has been mixed at best--a recent report blasted the handling of chemical wastes on the North Slope--there have been no dramatic incidents until now.
But oil tankers have always been regarded as the riskiest part of the oil system environmentally, in part because trouble can develop far from the equipment that can readily respond to it. U.S. Coast Guard figures show that vessels are the largest single known source of oil pollution incidents, and eight of the 12 biggest spills on record involved tankers.
The Exxon incident could prove particularly damaging to the oil industry if early charges of human error and a slow cleanup response prove correct. Hattoy said: “The oil industry and their claims that they have the state-of-the-art technology do not acknowledge the potential for human error, and this disaster took place in relatively calm seas in an ideal situation.”
Lisa Speer, staff scientist of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said:
“What this spill does is illustrate that the potential impacts of development stretch way beyond Alaska. The tanker was headed toward Long Beach and it could have happened off Santa Monica . . . it could have happened in Long Beach.”
But given the nation’s reliance on oil--a demand that has grown sharply in the last few years as low prices made it more attractive for consumers while depressing domestic production--one House aide said the wrong response to the Exxon spill could make things worse.
The nation now gets at least two-thirds of its crude oil via tankers, including about 25% from Alaska and 40% from overseas. Industry officials say the U.S.-registered Alaskan fleet meets tougher safety standards than foreign vessels. Alaskan production has begun a slow decline, while imported oil has surged since late 1985.
“This will set the industry back . . . and probably for invalid reasons,” said Jack Riggs, staff director of the House Energy subcommittee on energy and power. “If we don’t have (development in the Alaskan wildlife refuge), we’ll have to import that oil from somewhere else.”
Banning oil production from offshore California--where the oil would be brought ashore by pipeline--would “perversely” mean greater environmental risk because the oil not produced there would be imported by tanker, probably from the Middle East, Riggs said.
John Lichtblau, executive director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, an industry-funded research group in New York, called Friday’s episode a convenient one for opponents of Alaskan wildlife refuge development and said:
“There is nothing Alaskan about this. It is a tanker accident that could have happened anywhere. This is not something that the industry can brush aside, but this accident didn’t happen because the ship was carrying oil. To tie it in with exploration and drilling is confusing the issue.”
In the end, said another oilman, the public policy consequences of the spill might depend on the outcome in Valdez.
“If we were able to burn off that oil and contain the spill, it would have one effect. If a lot of animals are killed and the fishery ruined, it will have another. All those things that happened in Santa Barbara--even though it’s cleaned up today--people still remember.”
Staff writers Paul Houston and David Lauter in Washington also contributed to this story.
PROBLEMS IN CONTAINING THE SPILL TACTIC Booms and Skimming WHAT IT DOES Surrounds the spill, “fencing” it off. The booms can prevent a spill from moving into threatened areas such as shorelines. And they can be used to skim oil into large tanks attached to a barge or on a ship. DIFFICULTIES IN ALASKA Alaskan spill too large to fence off with booms. Also, not enough equipment available to skim off all the oil fast enough. The rougher the seas, the less effective this method is. Most effective on small, controlled spills.
TACTIC Burning WHAT IT DOES This is a relatively new technology not widely used so far. The oil is contained inside of a fireproof boom, then ignited and burned off. DIFFICULTIES IN ALASKA An unpredictable, experimental tactic. Igniting the oil can be tricky, especially if the slick is thin, and oil might not burn off of cold, rough waters. Results in hydrocarbons polluting the air.
TACTIC Unloading the remaining oil WHAT IT DOES This saves the unspilled oil by putting it into another tanker, preventing further spillage. DIFFICULTIES IN ALASKA Does nothing to clean up the oil already spilled in the water.
TACTIC Chemical Dispersants WHAT IT DOES These are surface-active agents that work to break up the surface oil slick into droplets that disperse into the upper 10 feet of water. Once broken up, the oil further breaks down in the water. An oil spill dispersant named Corexit manufactured by Exxon has been used extensively on spills to break up oil before it reaches shore. Dispersants can be applied by either boat or plane, though aerial drops are the most effective method. DIFFICULTIES IN ALASKA Ideally, this method is used early in a spill. Large spills require huge quantities of the dispersants and equipment. The chemicals require active mixing from rougher seas than are found in Prince William Sound, but fishermen fear it will injure wildlife. Even oil that has been broken down remains toxic and still threatens living organisms, environmentalists warn. Also, many of the chemicals are solvents and can damage living organisms directly exposed to them. Source: ARCO ; Natural Resources Defense Council