As Americans watch that massive oil slick slosh toward gulf beaches, many are reminded of the huge Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989.

That spring, I spent months in Alaska for the Seattle Times, covering the spill and its consequences for people and wildlife.  And one of the curiosities was watching Exxon executives, many of them Texans, who seemed utterly shocked not just by the spill itself, but even more so by the breadth and intensity of the public response.  

The oil people understood, of course, that the spill was a major problem.  And they intended to deal with it.   But the Texans seemed dumbfounded, and perhaps terrified that Americans were actually cutting up their Exxon credit cards and boycotting Exxon gas.  

What’s the big deal?  They seemed to ask.   This is the Alaska wilderness, a world apart from America’s front doors.  Most Americans have never been to Prince William Sound, and never will go there.   So why are people so upset?

After weeks covering the story, I took a break to attend a previously-scheduled family gathering – coincidentally at a beach resort at Port Aransas on the Texas Gulf Coast.   As soon as we arrived, I took the kids out to the beach for a swim.

It was a nice beach and the gulf was warm, but I was taken aback by the ugly, black tar balls, some of the size of tennis balls, mixed with the seaweed and flotsam at the top of the beach.    After swimming, we were puzzled by the black splotches that appeared on our swimming trunks.

Oil.  It seemed to be everywhere in the gulf – from tarballs to  wayward droplets floating at the surface.   But to the locals using the same beach, it was business as usual.  

And suddenly I realized why the public response to the Alaska spill had surprised the Texans.   Down on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, oil is considered an integral part of the ocean environment.  It may come from natural seeps from subterranean oilfields, or from leaky oil rigs or dirty ballast water dumped by the oil tankers that steamed past within eyesight.

Whatever the source, it’s there.  And, as far as Texans are concerned, it always has been, and always will be there.

Because, y’all have to understand, there’s o’l  in ocean……

Now people are upset because there’s more oil – a lot more oil – than anybody bargained for.  

But perhaps this, too, is part of the deal.  There are some 3,500 oil rigs scattered across the gulf, thousands of miles of pipelines, hundreds of tankers.  The gulf is simply one big oilfield worth billions each year to the region’s economy.

And now the chickens come home to roost.

Ross Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Port Townsend, WA.  In 1990, he and three colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their coverage of the Valdez spill.