After the oil spill

After spending around half a billion dollars, scientists paid by the government to study the Exxon Valdez oil spill over the last two decades still cannot answer some of the most important questions about the damage it caused or about whether Prince William Sound will fully recover.

We’re in danger of ending up just as ignorant after the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, as once again, our legal, political and economic systems hobble scientists and pervert the search for answers.

The mandate of Alaska’s government-sponsored oil spill research was to quantify the damage of the spill and guide decisions for restoring of the environment. After the initial chaos, lawyers for the state of Alaska and the federal government called the shots on a joint science program. Later, a state-federal interagency council was in charge, although still with a heavy hand from lawyers and politicians. Most of the money spent for thousands of individual studies ultimately came from a legal settlement with Exxon.

The failures were built in by those controlling the money. The best scientists in the field recognized early on that to tease out oil spill impacts from broader changes in the ecosystem, they would need well-coordinated studies looking at many species and many factors in the environment. But lawyers rejected those projects, instead focusing on studies looking at damage to the most popular individual species in isolation.


In the end, according to retired University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner, the studies were of little help in fixing Prince William Sound: No restoration decisions per se have been made based on the findings. And we didn’t even find out how much oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez. The oft-quoted figure of 11 million gallons is probably about a third of the total, but definitive follow-up studies were never completed.

Nor did we get answers for the greatest lingering mystery of the oil spill. Before the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, Prince William Sound had huge spring herring runs — massive balls of spawning fish. Afterward, the fish developed lesions and other defects. Their numbers crashed in 1994 and have never recovered. Fishermen lost an important part of their livelihood, and the ecosystem is undersupplied with a forage fish critical to the food web, but because scientists didn’t study the ecosystem holistically after the spill, the tens of millions of dollars spent researching herring have yielded only guesses as to why. And Exxon gets away with claiming it wasn’t to blame.

A big part of the problem in the Alaska situation is that business and government have a desire not to know, and especially not to tell. Some of the same institutions responsible for the damage and the cleanup also fund the science that can expose their culpability and lack of effectiveness.

In Alaska, Exxon and government officials resisted efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to set up studies to track how well the cleanup was working and whether it was doing more harm than good. The unfavorable results of the one, small study that was completed were initially kept confidential. I was able to see them only after filing an appeal of a denied Freedom of Information Act Request.


As I have documented in my book, “The Fate of Nature,” a scientist who revealed that rescued sea otters mostly died after they were released — and that their release may have sickened healthy otters in the wild — lost his research contracts and was blacklisted from future work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had approved the rescue operation.

With a similar affection for ignorance, BP, the Coast Guard and even the president for a time maintained that it didn’t matter how much oil was leaking in the gulf. BP initially blocked video of the gusher that outside experts could use to estimate the flow, and only after public pressure used equipment offered by a professor to measure it directly.

Another problem is mixing litigation with science. In Alaska, government lawyers muzzled scientists working for the public, labeling their work as evidence against Exxon. That secrecy was supposed to help build a case, but it mostly crippled scientists’ ability to coordinate their work and caused wasted efforts. Yet they ultimately made no significant use of the studies they ordered, instead agreeing to settle the cases with Exxon for an arbitrary negotiated figure that Alaska’s governor at the time, Walter Hickel, told me he pulled out of thin air.

In the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are already running into a legalistic wall of silence. The journal Nature reports in its May 27 issue that, in some cases, academic scientists can’t even find out what government research is happening. A communications director for NOAA cited the same reason we heard in Alaska — “the ongoing investigation"— as if someone were worried about tipping off the prime suspect that his oil spill had been discovered.


Another problem is the abuse of science in the service of public relations. In studying the Alaska disaster, the government and Exxon became locked in a war of research, producing dueling studies and accusations of misconduct. The Chronicle of Higher Education found that although all the researchers involved were from reputable institutions, their results correlated mainly with who was paying the bills.

In the gulf, BP has already established a beachhead in an alternate reality, avoiding questions, spinning terminology and blankly denying the existence of underwater plumes of oil discovered by independent, academic scientists. And BP has announced its own science project, noting that it will look at how natural oil seeps may have fouled the gulf, a bugaboo repeatedly raised by Exxon in Alaska to cast away blame. Grants BP made to academic researchers on Tuesday sound more promising.

The situation is discouraging, but the solutions aren’t complicated. Form an independent entity led by top independent scientists who can coordinate a research plan and allocate funding to individual researchers or organizations based on merit — just as big-ticket, big-effort science usually is managed in this country.

All scientific work should be public and delivered in peer-reviewed journals and open conferences. Any harm to lawsuits or criminal investigations caused by openness will be slight compared with the benefit to society of getting the answers we need to understand what has happened and prevent it from happening again. Besides, a publicly vetted science program will be far more difficult for industry-hired experts to assail. Their criticisms can be accounted for as the research unfolds, and therefore made irrelevant to the final result.


Catastrophe can be an excellent teacher, but only if we study it without fear or favor. BP and the federal government are to blame for the disaster. They shouldn’t get to decide what truths are learned from it.

Charles Wohlforth’s new book, “The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth,” explores the history and environment of his home state of Alaska for lessons about humanity’s relationship to Earth.