Lessons of the Exxon Valdez

Excerpts: Yet the Exxon Valdez still sends a powerful cautionary message: oil development, however necessary, is an inherently risky, dirty business — especially so in the forbidding waters of the Arctic.

…Mr. Salazar must also make decisions about the waters of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, which hold the bulk of America’s untapped reserves and have always been open to drilling. Drilling in the gulf has caused relatively few environmental problems and is widely accepted. Drilling in Alaskan waters is another issue altogether. The unforgiving Arctic environment is far riskier; icy, turbulent waters would make oil spills hard to contain. And the ecological damage could be staggering; Alaska’s waters contain some of the richest fisheries and most varied wildlife on earth.

One fairly easy call for Mr. Salazar would be to restore protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay. President George H. W. Bush declared the bay off-limits to drilling after the Exxon Valdez disaster — a move reversed by his son George W. Bush in 2007.

…The Bush administration had even more ambitious plans for other waters in the Arctic — opening 40 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and 33 million acres in the Beaufort Sea for possible development. It sold one lease, now under court challenge, covering 2.3 million acres in 2008. Unless the Obama administration changes course, other leases within these areas are sure to be offered.

These plans, too, cry out for reconsideration.