The Gulf of Mexico is a continent removed from Alaska’s Prince William Sound. One is a warm sea enclosed by tropical islands and sandy beaches, the other a frigid arctic fiord surrounded by mountains and glaciers. And their oil spills are separated by 21 years of technology and human experience.
The Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 was the largest in US history, resulting in a momentous and unprecedented cleanup and 20 years of scientific research into the short and long-term consequences. It presented a rare opportunity for Americans to learn from experience.
The BP Spill in the Gulf, which may well be bigger than Alaska’s, suggests that few of those lessons stuck.
Here’s a few of fundamental truths that should have been learned in Alaska a generation ago:
Major oil spills can’t be contained: The idea of somehow retrieving this much oil is laughable. Oil booms are useful for corralling small spills from leaky ships. But a slick the size that we’re seeing on the gulf will go where nature takes it. The Valdez spill oiled hundreds of miles of Alaskan beaches, and booms protected only a few selected bays. Expect the same in the Gulf.
Cleanup is a bad joke: BP promises to clean up their mess, but they know better. In 1989, Exxon spent more than $2 billion on well-equipped cleanup crews who spent months steam-cleaning Alaskan beaches, sometimes washing individual rocks. It was a spectacular waste of money. Some evidence suggests armies of workers invading wilderness islands simply made things worse, extending the damage beyond the high tideline. Ultimately, cleanup is left to nature and time.
Consequences to wildlife are not predictable: How marine life fares in an oil spill depends largely on the life cycle of any given species. If a creature lives or feeds at the surface of the sea, they’re in for trouble. If they swim at the bottom and don’t visit the surface, they’re liable to be OK.
The Alaska spill killed or sickened seals and other marine mammals, and decimated populations of diving birds. But salmon, the species that was considered most at risk in 1989, did just fine; the Prince William Sound salmon harvest the year after the spill was enormous.
The last major spill in the gulf, in 1979, did not have a dramatic effect on shrimp, according to one federal study of the impacts.
Oil spill science is political: In the years following the Alaska spill, government and the oil industry spent billions studying the effects. Science sponsored by the oil industry generally concluded: It was yucky, but nature is resilient and the environment soon recovers.
Science sponsored by state agencies and environmental groups concluded: The spill was a monumental disaster, and the Alaska shoreline will take decades to recover. Trouble is, the green science was no less biased than the oil science. When so much is at stake, in terms of economics and politics, the science becomes hopelessly politicized.
In Alaska, the most credible science seemed to come from the spill experts at the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, based in Seattle, which responds to virtually every spill of consequence in the nation. They’re on the job in the Gulf, and their assessments are likely to be less political.
Oil spills should never happen: Safer energy sources are out there, when the nation truly commits to them. And we have the experience and technology to prevent accidents.
They will happen anyway: Oil spills are analogous to foodborne illness. We understand the problem, and we know how to prevent it. But the alternatives are expensive and memories are short. We will hear promises of “Never again.” But then our attention will be drawn somewhere else, and we’ll drop our guard. Mistakes will be made. And more oil will be spilled.
Get used to it.