The Lessons of the Exxon Valdez
A year after the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, the nation is busy Drawing Lessons. What can we conclude from this worst-ever-yet accident of the petroleum industry in the United States? What, if anything, ought to be done so that no such disaster ever happens again?
The oil industry seems to have taken for its lesson the most narrow and obvious conclusion possible, namely:
NEVER HIRE A DRUNK FOR A SHIP CAPTAIN.
In political and industrial circles, where, one hopes, the responsibility of oversight causes broader lessons to be drawn, a slightly more momentous conclusion is commonly heard:
OIL COMPANIES REALLY OUGHT TO BE MORE CAREFUL.
Whether this conclusion will be translated into consequential measures to insure carefulness remains, as they like to say at the end of news reports, to be seen.
In Alaska, where the damage was heartbreaking and the anger is still palpable, the communal lesson has been a bitter but useful one:
NEVER TRUST A LARGE, DISTANT, ARROGANT CORPORATION.
Those lessons all strike me as appropriate, but trivial compared to the conclusions the environmental organizations would like us to draw. The Wilderness Society, for example, has released a report titled "A Hundred Spills, A Thousand Excuses," which puts the Exxon Valdez spill in perspective. The Society compiled records from the Coast Guard, the Bureau of Land Management, and other sources and made a list of significant oil spills in the United States. Here are some excerpts from just the month following the wreck of the Exxon Valdez:
March 24, 1989 -- Prince William Sound, Alaska. Exxon Valdez runs aground and loses nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.
March 28 -- Merced County, California. Pipeline failure leaks 420,000 gallons of crude.
April 3 -- New Mumford, Texas. Train derailment spills 9500 gallons of fuel oil.
April 11 -- Atlanta, Texas. Tank truck overturns spilling 8400 gallons of gasoline.
April 14 -- Tensas Parish, Louisiana. Barge collision dumps 22,300 gallons of gasoline into Mississippi River.
April 16 -- Tacoma, Washington. 15,200 gallons diesel oil spills into Commencement Bay.
April 20 -- Texas City Harbor, Texas. Over 25,000 gallons leak from unknown source.
April 24 -- Dubuque County, Iowa. Damaged Amoco pipeline spills 33,600 gallons of gas, causing $500,000 in property damage.
Every year the world's petroleum industry moves on the order of 1000 billion gallons of oil and spills 1 billion of them -- one of every thousand.
Anyone who is concerned about the environment must see that, while it is certainly true that oil companies can and should be more careful, and that much stronger incentives, regulations, liabilities, and enforcements are necessary, the real lesson that leaps forth here is:
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO HANDLE OIL WITHOUT SPILLING SOME OF IT.
Even if industry got 10 times better at handling oil neatly -- which is unlikely -- the annual spill would still total 100 million gallons, or the equivalent of 10 Exxon Valdez's per year. From that realization follows another:
IF THERE'S ANY PLACE YOU WANT TO KEEP FREE FROM OIL, YOU'D BETTER KEEP OIL AWAY FROM IT ALTOGETHER.
The Wilderness Society recommends that you bear this lesson in mind the next time the oil companies ask to explore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or drill offshore from your favorite beach.
Fine lessons all, but still not, to my mind, the full message of the Exxon Valdez. What those blackened Alaska beaches and dying seabirds say to me is:
THE MARKET PRICE OF OIL IS JUST A SMALL FRACTION OF THE REAL PRICE WE PAY FOR IT.
THE SOONER WE END OUR ADDICTION TO OIL -- BY USING ENERGY MORE EFFICIENTLY AND SWITCHING TO SOLAR -- THE BETTER.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)