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Lessons Learned From Exxon Valdez

March 25, 2009

Reflecting back on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, eyewitness and conservationist Dennis Kelso recalled “a thick pancake of shiny black” covering the still waters of Prince William Sound. 

As Alaska’s environment conservation chief at the time of the ecological disaster, 20 years ago today, Kelso’s experience offers valuable lessons for any future Arctic oil initiatives.

After the spill, it fell to Kelso to enforce clean-up standards around the Valdez as it leaked oil into important fishing grounds. Ultimately, the supertanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaskan waters, polluting 1,300 miles of coastline and killing or disrupting the region’s marine wildlife.  The clean-up costs were in excess of $2 billion, with efforts still ongoing today.

Exxon, now known as ExxonMobil, was required to pay $1 billion in damages as a result of the incident, and state and federal governments are seeking  an additional $92 million.

Kelso, who now works with the environmental group Ocean Conservancy, recalled traveling to the spill site in a small Coast Guard vessel with Alaska’s then-Governor Steve Cowper, roughly six hours after the Valdez hit Bligh Reef.

“There’s a thick pancake of shiny black, it was really calm,” Kelso said in an interview with Reuters.

“We were right next to the vessel, the Coast Guard (boat) nosed up against the Exxon Valdez, which was listing and hanging on the reef, and the governor and I climbed up the rope ladder … up to the deck.”

“There was a skeleton crew there, but no one from Exxon,” he added.

Aside from the pungent smell of the oil, Kelso said what struck him the most was that Exxon’s legally approved clean-up plan was not conducted as it should have been. 

However, he found no shortage of Exxon staff at an “incendiary” town meeting in the town of Valdez.

“The governor and I walked into this meeting and were the only ones who’ve been on the tanker,” Kelso told Reuters.

“We’re obviously oily … we’re both wearing rubber boots … and the Exxon officials are there but they’re wearing three-piece suits.”

Kelso viewed the tragedy and its aftermath as a systemic failure.

“It was the breakdown of an industrial system that the public had been assured would not break down,” he said.

“And because it was thought to be so reliable, some of the safeguards had been dismantled.”

Beyond the ecological devastation, the Valdez incident calls into question whether Arctic offshore drilling should be part of U.S. energy strategy, Kelso said, adding that clean-up and recovery of oil has never been successfully achieved in rough, icy Arctic waters.

The Bush administration’s policy of offering millions of acres of gas and oil leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and Bristol Bay were justified by 40-year-old information that failed to account for global warming, Kelso said.

Climate change resulting from human-based activities, such greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and fossil-fueled vehicles, has hit the Arctic region particularly hard, with the region’s summer sea ice decreasing dramatically in the last two years.

“At a time when the entire set of ecosystems is under deep stress from global climate disruption, we would be well advised to go carefully when we think about extending these industrial activities,” said Kelso.

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