INSIGHT: Exxon Valdez still echoes in offshore policy

26 March 2009 16:43  [Source: ICIS news]

The Exxon Valdez under tow after the 1989 oil spillBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Twenty years ago this week the oil tanker Exxon Valdez tore open its bottom on Bligh Reef, spilled 11m gallons of heavy crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound - and helped scuttle a crucial US energy option.

It was a major catastrophe that rightly horrified Alaskans and environmentalists everywhere. 

And it is a disaster whose consequences are still being played out in the ecology of Prince William Sound, law courts and in sentiment toward hydrocarbon energy among citizens and policymakers.

In part because of that 1989 environmental disaster, Congress and successive presidents maintained drilling moratoria in 85% of resource-rich US offshore areas, bans that were lifted just last year when record high US gasoline prices made them politically untenable.

In fact, those offshore drilling bans were already in place when the Exxon Valdez ran into Bligh Reef and infamy.  The moratoria were put in place after - and in large measure because of - the 1969 blowout on Union Oil’s Platform A off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

That environmental tragedy spilled more than 3m gallons of crude into the Pacific over ten days, befouling beaches, fisheries and waterfowl habitat along 30 miles of California’s coastline and four near shore islands.

The Santa Barbara spill triggered the modern environmental movement in the US and led to sweeping federal and state legislation seeking to protect air, water and land resources - among those measures ultimately was the offshore drilling ban.

Those already building environmental protection campaigns were accelerated by the Exxon Valdez accident.

However, now, as the US faces increasingly costly energy and demand and increasing dependence on foreign-sourced oil and natural gas, Congress is wrestling with the question of how to exploit the perhaps abundant energy reserves in those once-closed offshore regions in the outer continental shelf (OCS).

As the Institute for Energy Research (IER) notes, the potential for catastrophic tanker spills like that of the Exxon Valdez has been greatly reduced.  In part, that is because the Exxon Valdez incident gave rise to design and construction of double-hulled super tankers.

But the institute, which advocates free market energy policies, argues that renewed drilling in US offshore areas long closed to development would both reduce US dependence on foreign oil and cut the number of oil tankers entering the nation’s coastal waters.

“Oil spills from tankers at four times the rate of offshore oil production,” the institute noted.  “And higher foreign oil imports mean more tankers in the ocean.”

“The number one source of oil in waters is natural seeps, which contribute 63 times as much oil in North American waters as OCS production,” the institute said.

Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (Democrat-Guam), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, made note of the Exxon Valdez anniversary in hearings on offshore development this week.

“There is no question that improvements have been made since then, not only in our tankers used to transport oil, but also in operations to avoid spills and responses to spills when they do occur,” she said.

“There will always be risks, however, no matter how far we have come, and there are some areas that are too sensitive to risk to oil and gas development, or maybe even for other forms of energy development,” she added, referring to projects seeking to harness offshore wind and wave energy potential.

“Too sensitive, perhaps, because they provide critical habitat for valuable fish stocks or populations of endangered marine mammals,” she said, “or there may be areas that are too sensitive because they are close to coral reefs.”

“It is our responsibility to ensure that we protect these important habitats and marine resources as we look to explore options for increasing our energy independence through energy development of many kinds in the OCS,” she added.

Bordallo also paid heed to a considerable number in Congress and a broader constituency among environmentalists who would prefer that the offshore drilling ban simply be restored, period.

“While I recognize that there are many who would like to see the moratorium on offshore drilling reinstated, the new [Obama] administration has made clear that some drilling will be a part of our broader, national energy strategy as we move forward.”

“Our challenge, then, is to ensure that new drilling or any energy development in the OCS is done responsibly, and provides the greatest energy and economic benefit with the fewest environmental impacts possible,” she said.

As the nation struggles to reconcile its energy needs and environmental interests, the OCS debate will likely be protracted and heated, perhaps postponing indefinitely any real offshore development.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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