I’ve been following closely the recent oil spill in the Gulf. For me, it has practical consequences. First, it could affect the energy industry in Houston (that’s why the local paper is covering it in such depth). Second, it could affect the availability of wild shrimp from the Gulf. Frankly, the wild shrimp has been phenomenal over the years.
But while perusing all the articles about the oil spill, I learned two amazing facts.
First, the biggest oil spill of all time was not Exxon Valdez but the giant oil spill Saddam Hussein ordered during the first Gulf War. 2 to 3 million barrels of oil washed ashore on Saudi Arabia. Nice going, Mr. Hussein!
Second, I came across this amazing article about the Exxon Valdez by marine biologist Riki Ott. She talks about all the promises that oil companies have made to Alaska without really delivering.
Safer tankers are no excuse to drill as the on-going oil rig blowout in Australia illustrates. Oil will spill as long as oil is drilled because we are human, and humans err. The industry has yet to make good on another decades-old promise made when the tanker Torrey Canyon wrecked on Brittan’s shore in 1967. The industry still can’t clean up oil when it washes ashore. "Nothing’s changed," observed a retired oil port official in Shetland (Scotland) when I was there earlier this month.
But the oil industry can certainly put on a good show of busy-ness for appearances sake. Exxon spent billions during its 1989 cleanup – spill survivors call it a cover up – which was a tax write-off as a cost of doing business. The oil industry had promised residents that harsh dispersants (chemical products) would not be used on biologically sensitive beaches. Further, Exxon promised cleanup workers that its products were not toxic: "Just wear the right gear," they said. Dispersants and products with solvents were used on beaches. Adequate gear was not provided and thousands of workers became sick.
Exxon claimed the illnesses were colds and flu – the "Valdez Crud" – and the company fought workers who sued, claiming their respiratory illnesses and other sicknesses were chemical poisoning. This saga is still playing out as Barnett and Lerner, an admiralty law firm in Florida, is taking ExxonMobil to court to pay for disabilities, medicine, health care, and lost wages of those who survived the failed 1989 cleanup.
Exxon promised to make the community whole after the spill. We naively took Exxon’s word, not realizing that Exxon meant to the minimum extent mandated by law. The corporation, wielding ill-gained human rights (www.ultimatecivics.com) and its enormous wealth, fought spill victims – common people – in court for over 20 years to minimize its liability and reduce the number of claims against them. Owners of tourism businesses and shoreside vendors that supported the commercial fishing industry were some of the first to have their claims thrown out, of court, despite serious losses. The bitterness and length of the lawsuit itself generated its own trauma that played out as decades of community dysfunction (www.drpicou.com). In the end, people whose claims survived the 20-year battle recovered about 10 percent of their economic losses – and not one cent of the losses to culture or quality of life (www.blackwavethefilm.com).
Ok, I basically knew all that (except for the specific details). But here’s the detail that really caught me by surprise:
The industry promised, for instance, in the early 1970s to double hull its tankers to minimize the risk of spills. But it will take until 2015 – more than 40 years – for it to make good on this promise.
I remember that every article I read in 1989 about Exxon Valdez included this recommendation. Every expert was saying the same thing: you need double-hulled ships! I vividly remember a graphic in Time magazine showing why double-hulled ships were superior. 20 years later, it still isn’t required? This 2003 article by Craig Welch confirms this:
After the 1989 spill, Congress gave companies until 2015 to phase out all single-hull tankers operating in U.S. waters and replace them with thermos-like dual hulls. The idea: If an iceberg, reef or collision punctured a ship’s outer shell, the inner core that holds its oily cargo could still stay intact.
But halfway through that phase-out period, only seven of nearly two dozen tankers offloading oil here from Alaska’s North Slope have dual hulls. Of those, only two are new. And foreign tankers often more lightly inspected by private shipping organizations than their U.S. counterparts now ferry more petroleum products to and from U.S. ports.
Of the 366 tanker calls to Puget Sound last year, 108 were by ships sailing under foreign flags. Roughly half the world’s tanker fleet has not converted to double hulls.
Few dispute that U.S. oil transport is safer than it once was. Oil-spill volumes are a fraction of a decade ago, and some types of shipping — such as barges motored by tug boats — are almost entirely double-hulled.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has perhaps the world’s strictest operating regulations, and a sophisticated vessel-traffic system watches ships near shore. The Coast Guard also follows a complex risk formula — based on a ship’s age, home nation and the reputation of the private shipping organization that regularly inspects it — to determine how vigorously to scrutinize foreign vessels.
"We vet every ship that’s coming in here. It doesn’t matter if it’s foreign or U.S.," said Seattle-based Coast Guard marine inspector John Waters.
Most ships ferrying crude from Alaska also now have double bottoms, which could help in a grounding, though they offer limited additional support in collisions. The tanker group that carries oil-giant BP’s crude has five new double-hull ships under construction at a cost of $1 billion. The first is expected to be operating next year.
ConocoPhillips, with two new tankers in operation, expects three more in coming years — all ahead of its phase-out schedule.
Yet even the American Petroleum Institute counts only 22 double hulls among the 64 "product tankers" that carry fuel from refineries. Fifty-six of the world’s largest and oldest single-hull tankers had to be repaired, en route to the U.S. Gulf Coast last year.
That was written in 2003. Hopefully, things have gotten better since that time. Who knows?
My guess on the whole thing is that oil companies have lots of expertise on the subject and already have contingency plans for handling precisely these scenarios. Apparently, all oil is taxed and put into a fund precisely for this cleanup situation. At the same time, there is only so much that a skilled recovery plan can do (especially when you are dealing with the vagaries of tides and the weather). Oil companies also have contingency plans for handling the PR; brace yourselves! What’s clear is that oil companies have influenced regulations and liability law in a way that will minimize their liability and come nowhere close to undoing the damage being done in the name of Drill, Baby, Drill.
That said, the timing of this disaster is impeccable. Right after Obama’s announcement of a plan to allow offshore drilling and before a climate change bill is introduced. For once, Ms. Palin’s mantra to drill, baby, drill will be exposed for being pathetic and short-sighted.