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A sadly ironic anniversary present for the United States

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Twenty-two years ago today an ecological disaster which at that time was unprecedented in scale resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil which covered wildlife and impacted the shoreline in a way that locals on the Alaska coast say continues to this day.  We know that accident as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

photo of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska 22 years ago on March 24, 1989. On this anniversary a mysterious oil sheen oozes toward the shores of Louisiana giving us a little nudge to make sure that even in a news cycle which has moved on to tsunamis and nuclear accidents we don't forget the unfinished business of developing a safe system for offshore oil and gas development

Never again. 

That’s what we told ourselves, and for years we went without another major oil spill in the offshore waters of the U.S.  But anyone who has picked up a paper, seen the nightly news, or listened to the radio knows that on one fateful night aboard the Transocean Horizon platform which was closing out their work at the BP Macondo well, a major blowout and loss of containment at the drill site occurred resulting in another major oil spill. 

Again, we said never again.  

Never will we be caught unaware and have uncontrolled oil released into the fragile environment of our coastal waters.

But today, on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, offshore on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico we are seeing oil sheens that extend for miles on the surface, leaving us again wondering what is the source of the oil, how much oil is there, and when will the leaks stop.

The Houston based company Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners has accepted responsibility for an oil spill from a dormant well, reporting to the Coast Guard that they are responsible for the uncontrolled release of less than five gallons of crude oil. Somehow a five gallon release doesn’t make much sense to those with a healthy amount of common sense as the slick on the water has been reported to be over 30 miles long.

A realistic look at the offshore oil and gas development industry tells us that, without driving costs up inordinately, a spill-free world isn’t realistic.  What we need to search for is a set of voluntary and mandatory guidelines that keeps workers out of harm’s way, minimizes the changes that additional spills will occur and has robust systems in place to address spills when they occur – systems that would include rapidly deployable assets to contain leaks as well as systems to capture leaked oil and rehabilitate damaged ecosystems and communities when leaks occur.  It sound s easy.  So easy one would have guessed that such as system was in place before the explosion and loss of the Deepwater Horizon platform. But real world experiences inform us that we are consistently not prepared to address all three components of a robust response system.  And even when we have what we believe are the right assets in place, the profit margins of companies are put to odds with the precautionary principle and we under-plan our response capabilities.

It is time to be a good bit more conservative when we look to balance environmental safety against short-term profits.  Ideally corporations would strike this balance on their own, as other than the oddities of limits on liabilities which the oil and gas companies enjoy, oil and gas companies want to reduce accidents as accident-free operations helps the bottom line. But corporations, like individuals, sometimes fail to act in their own self-interest, leaving an important role for a government system that compels companies to act responsibly.

Bombings in Libya, the wackiness of an ongoing series of super short duration spending bills on Capitol Hill, tsunamis and disasters at nuclear plants are already drawing the public attention to other things, and for those in places other than the still hard hit Gulf Coast, attention has turned away from oil and gas drilling accidents to other issues.

Perhaps a mysterious oil spill on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez accident is just what we need to stay on track and finish efforts already underway to determine where and how oil and gas development should occur in the U.S. and the contingency plans we’ll need in place for those areas where we do decide to drill.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

Written by Will Nuckols

March 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm