Relearning oil spill lessons

Each news update from the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tightens a hard knot in my stomach. Alaskans who lived through the Exxon Valdez oil spill feel dark memories resurfacing. We talk about our sadness for the people in the way, people who don’t know what’s about to hit them.

“They still seem to think they’ll be able to contain this and stop it, and they just can’t,” said Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska fisheries extension agent whose life was irrevocably upset by the Exxon Valdez, which spilled at least 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound 21 years ago.

“Not much oil is going to be recovered; they’re not going to save much wildlife; they’re not going to be able to restore damaged ecosystems.”

I remember experts saying the same things when I was a much younger man and Exxon’s oil still smelled fresh on the water. But at 26 I couldn’t really comprehend the predictions that oil would remain in sheltered shores, poisoning marine ecosystems, for at least 20 years. Now I understand. Steiner and others have shown it to me.

With middle age, I can see the generational pattern of how we forget and then must relearn these things.

In 1969, an oil rig blew off Santa Barbara, and another Alaskan, Interior Secretary Wally Hickel, shut down offshore oil drilling throughout the nation. The Santa Barbara disaster powered the growing environmental movement. The first Earth Day happened a year later, and oil exploration off much of the U.S. coast has been blocked ever since.

Twenty years later, Congress was on the verge of allowing drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the salmon-rich waters of Bristol Bay when the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks. Again, America discovered the hazards of crude oil on water. New environmental laws were passed, and plans were shelved for drilling in the wildlife refuge and the bay.

Another 21 years passed. President Obama announced he would end the offshore moratorium. Three weeks later, two days before the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, an explosion and fire on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig presumably killed 11 workers and started this spill.

Shell still plans to drill this summer, with administration support, on leases 50 to 150 miles off Alaska’s Arctic Coast, in the Chukchi Sea — waters where isolation, cold and moving sea ice would make a blowout infinitely more difficult to handle than in the Gulf of Mexico.

Each generation has to learn a new lesson about our limitations; about humility before nature. The story of the Exxon Valdez is complex, but its moral is painfully simple. Technology fails because humans fail. Spills are inevitable. And once they happen, good intentions are useless. We can’t fix nature.

Blowout preventers usually work. Tankers usually steer clear of well-charted rocks. Oil can be burned on the water; it can be corralled and scooped up; it can be dispersed by chemicals. Of the oil that unavoidably blows ashore, some lands on exposed, biologically unproductive beaches where it is easy to pick up.

But in a big oil spill, some oil will get away — usually the vast majority will. Some will find its way into quiet estuaries, protected from waves, the nurseries of fish, the deep muddy beds of clams, the places where long-legged birds pluck their dinner. Either this oil will release poison for years, or people will try to remove it, in the process destroying the life of the estuary and perhaps destroying much of those shores’ life-making capacity in the process.

What happens next in the Gulf of Mexico? Symbolic animal rescues. Millions and perhaps billions spent sopping up oil, digging up marshes, sterilizing formerly fecund shores. Investigations, accusations, blame; and statements that no one is to blame, or that we’re all to blame. Litigation that outlasts the victims. And, for the affected human communities, loss of livelihood, loss of faith in our institutions, loss of beautiful places that sustain the soul.

And then, more forgetting. Till next time.

Charles Wohlforth is the author of the forthcoming book “The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth”