The Risks of Underregulation


Exxon is the nation’s third largest industrial corporation, earning $5.3 billion in profit on sales of nearly $80 billion last year. Despite these resources, however, this immense corporate empire has failed to come to grips with its oil spill more than five weeks after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Exxon’s first cleanup plan was found to be inadequate by federal officials. Its second plan seems to retreat even from the commitment of the first plan, proposing 3,400 workers compared with 4,000, and calculating 364 miles of contaminated beach when Alaska officials count double that amount. Coast Guard Commandant Paul A. Yost characterized the new plan as “quite light, very thin.” Federal approval is pending. Alaskan environmental officials called it unacceptable.

The new plan, in fact, would abandon the cleanup of 191 miles of “moderately soiled” beach to natural wave action. This course seems to follow silent approval of some but not all top federal officials. After a visit to Alaska in late April, Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. said that washing the beaches with hoses was not going to do the job. He derided the effort as make-work for appearance’s sake. “What I think will happen is, nature, with the tide coming in and going out, is what’s going to take care of it.” That may prove to be the only alternative in some areas, but any beach that can be cleaned this summer will reduce the long-term fouling. The cleaner the beaches now, the less wildlife will be threatened with oil damage and spill-caused illness.


During a visit to the scene Thursday, Vice President Dan Quayle said that Exxon must do more, perhaps a signal of a more vigorous response from Washington. “And the President is not going to let anyone off the hook,” he added. “The job will be done.” Quayle sought to defend President Bush against criticism that he had not responded vigorously enough to the March 24 disaster. Quayle told Alaskans that one of the reasons for his trip was that “I’m here as his vice president, because he feels strongly about this.”

Meanwhile, Exxon seemed to treat the disaster as just one of those things. Yes, the oil spill was a bad one, the firm said in a recent statement, “but accidents can happen to anyone.” The arrogance of the company seems to be exceeded only by its insensitivity to the dimensions of the disaster and the concern of people throughout the country for the Alaskan environment and wildlife. Yes, accidents can happen anywhere, but there are ways to guard the wildest, most magnificent landscapes in the world. It was the oil industry itself that assured Congress and the American people that the oil transportation link to Alaska was virtually foolproof. And it was the industry that guaranteed that even if there were an accident, the oil consortium that runs the Valdez marine terminal had equipment and manpower on hand to deal promptly with any spill.

Exxon keeps emphasizing that it will pay for the cleanup. But any cost not covered by insurance will be tax-deductible, the firm has noted.

The Exxon Valdez spill has demonstrated that Americans cannot rely on the good will of corporations to clean up their own messes adequately, although there are companies that value their public image so highly they will do the right thing. The Alaskan tragedy makes the case for strong federal regulations and controls closely monitored and strongly enforced. There must be stiff penalties for failure to comply. And whenever a company assumes a less-than-urgent approach to such a cleanup, the government must not hesitate to take direct command of the situation.

For the past eight years, the national Administration has complained about the cost of government regulation of business and worked to reduce the number of rules. Now, the nation knows the cost of insufficient regulation.