This spring we mark the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The grounding of the supertanker Exxon Valdez on Bligh reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989 resulted in the release of approximately 257,000 barrels of crude oil. That was less that 1/10th of the total cargo, but the negative effects on marine animals and birds were severe. Tens of thousands of marine birds, ≥3,000 sea otter, and hundreds of other marine mammals died as a result of acute exposure to oil. Part of the reason it was so bad was that the supplies needed to initially contain the spill and the barges to take on the oily water from around the ship either existed only on paper or were not available or operational. Human error compounding human error. After two days of calm weather, perfect for clean-up, a massive storm blew in and spread the oil almost 600 miles. That spill and the plight of its animal victims saturated all forms of news media for many months. It wasn’t the largest oil spill in American history, but until very recently it was certainly the most expensive and politically charged, and one of the most biologically devastating.
In 1989, there were no facilities for the care of oiled wildlife in Alaska. This, despite that fact that each and every tanker leaving Alaska had to transit some of the best sea otter and marine bird habitats in the world. Some otters had to wait days or weeks for care and died as a result. Three hundred sixty-one sea otters were cared for by contractors working for Exxon, of which 123 (34%) died, 196 (54%) were cleaned and released to the wild, and 37 (10%; many of them pups) were judged to be unlikely to survive if released and were sent to public display facilities.
Before the Exxon Valdez spill, the sea otter population in Alaska was believed to be between 100,000 and 150,000. Some biologists argued that sea otters were locally overabundant and that commercial hunting, banned for over 70 years, should be resumed. In the immediate wake of the 1989 spill, biologists predicted that sea otter populations would quickly recover on their own. Out of an estimated population of 30,000 sea otters in Prince William Sound, between 3,000 and 6,000 (10–20%) died as a direct or indirect result of the spill. Unfortunately, otter populations in many of the more heavily oiled areas have not recovered after 20 years, and the negative effects of the Exxon Valdez spill on their health have been well-documented. I hope the concept of human fallibility is coming through to my readers.
Joseph Hazelwood, the Captain of the Exxon Valdez, is often blamed for the spill, and indeed he was legally responsible. However, a decision made about 25 years previously was critical to setting the events in motion that would lead to the spill. In the 1960’s, the US government and oil companies were considering how best to move the oil recently discovered in Prudhoe Bay fields to US refineries. One proposal was to run the pipelines southeast, cross into the Canadian Provinces of Yukon and British Columbia and follow existing natural gas pipelines south into the Central Plains states. A second proposal, the “All American route”, had the pipeline going south and west to the Alaskan coast with transport the oil from there by tanker to US West Coast refineries. About this same time the government of British Columbia was under Socialist Party control and there was a strong French separatist movement in Quebec. Hard as it is to believe today, Cold War paranoia lead the Congress to see conservative, staid, “butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths” Canada as a somewhat suspect political and financial partner.
When the decision was finally made for the All American route, the financial, political and social investments that flowed from it would mean that all of the West Coast of the North America would be heavily affected (with arguably both bad and some good consequences) for 50-80 years, by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) oil trade. And the tanker Exxon Valdez, Captain Joe Hazelwood and the marine wildlife of Prince William Sound were on a collision course that would manifest in the spring of 1989.
It’s said that “Oil and water don’t mix”…….but they actually do mix, they just make one heck of a mess when they do. On average, only 15-20% of oil spilled into any marine environment is ever recovered with current technology. All oil spills are bad and to be avoided, but spills that occur in marine waters and into rivers are vastly more devastating, maybe 10 to 100 times more damaging, than those that occur on land.
Today we are facing a controversy and decision that is eerily similar to that of the 1960’s. The proposed Keystone pipeline would move tar sands oil from Alberta into the Central and Southern USA. As we all know there are serious environmental, social, economic and political concerns. Some environmentalists argue that the tar sands oil is too environmentally damaging to develop, but few economists doubt that they will be developed if the economics are there. Current world oil prices, the gasoline prices that flow from them, and the political situation in the Mid-East suggest that the economics are certainly “there”. An alternative is to run the pipeline west through the Rocky Mountains to the coast of British Columbia between Vancouver and Nanaimo. If it goes to the British Columbia coast it would be easy to market oil to China, India and the rest of the Far East.
I don’t know what the “right answer” is for the Alberta tar sands oil, but I do know that if oil is shipped by tanker from coastal British Columbia, past the San Juan Island Archipelago, out through the Straits of Juan De Fuca, whether they continue west to China or head south to California, or both, sea otters and all marine life of the Pacific Northwest (both American and Canadian) will be under the oil spill “Sword of Damocles” for another 50-80 years. And accidents and spills will occur.
The title quote about history and our ability to learn from it has been somewhat ironically reworded as “History repeats itself, that’s what’s wrong with history.” It’s worth noting that this version removes human beings from any responsibility and just blames nebulous outside forces. Sorry, but that is a “cop out”, people decide how much energy they use, what type of energy, where they will get it from, how it will be brought to market, and what risks and tradeoff will be made. Celebrate Exxon and look in the mirror, “we’ve met the enemy, and it is us”.