Have we made any safety progress since Exxon Valdez?

Oil spill workers attempt to clean up beach in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill. 

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 

Lois Epstein, P.E., is an engineer and the Arctic Program Director for The Wilderness Society. 

After the Exxon Valdez tanker hit Alaska’s Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989 spilling roughly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sensitive waters of Prince William Sound, a New York Times reporter asked for my reaction. I told him that the U.S. needed to reduce its dependency on the dirty oil industry, and shift to cleaner alternatives.

Twenty-five years later, how much progress have we made?

Policy Changes Have Been Minimal

A year after the Exxon Valdez spill, with a Republican Senate and president, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  OPA 90, as it is called, set industry’s liability for spill damages at $75 million, phased in double-hulled tankers, and created two Alaska-based citizen watchdog organizations, among other measures. Since then, tanker spills have decreased dramatically, showing that, when it chooses to, Congress and the federal government can have a positive effect.

Congress and the government can have a positive impact on oil safety, when they choose to: 

Table: Oil spillage rate from tank vessels per million miles of transport. From the API report Analysis of U.S. Oil Spillage

Tanker spills are just one part of the dirty oil picture, however. From drilling to pipeline transportation to refining, there are numerous spill and safety hazards. Oil and gas drilling – including the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – is only loosely regulated by states resulting in oil and gas well blowouts, well failures that contaminate groundwater, air pollution  and other local concerns.

We desperately need to upgrade federal regulations on pipelines. Such upgrades would help prevent major pipeline failures such as the rupture that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010; the 843,000-gallon tar sands spill that contaminated the Kalamazoo River in 2010; and the 865,000-gallon oil spill on North Dakota farmland in 2013.  The independent National Transportation Safety Board investigates major pipeline incidents and has made many regulatory recommendations which have not been implemented.

Safety improvements needed

Oil refinery fires in Anacortes, Wash., in 2010 and Richmond, Calif., in 2012 show the need for safety improvements as recommended by the federal government’s independent Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Spill cleanups are no better today than in 1989

Cleanup of offshore oil spills has not improved. In 1989, workers recovered only 8 percent of the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill. Twenty-one years later, crews recovered only 3 percent of the oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Limited Progress in Renewables Development

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, in March 1989 renewable use (including hydropower) in the United States was at 7.1 percent of overall energy consumption. In November 2013, it was up to 9.2 percent. While this is a slight improvement, no one can say America has meaningfully moved away from oil use during the past 25 years.

This dirty industry still needs to be regulated

Even with increased public knowledge of the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change, it’s hard to alter the status quo. The oil industry is very profitable and has powerful allies in Congress and the executive branch, which make it difficult to strengthen regulations and enforcement. We can’t give up, though, because regulating this industry properly is the right thing to do.

We also need to consider increasing the price of oil by raising taxes, and we should eliminate the cap on industry’s liability for spill damages. Individuals, government and businesses ought to reduce their fossil fuel consumption as much as possible. And the affected public and industry employees need to be vigilant and willing to expose – and help prevent – this dirty, highly-profitable industry’s safety and environmental problems.

No one likes spills and injuries.  Let’s act to prevent them, and take all necessary steps to reduce our nation’s dependency on this dirty industry.

Photo: An Exxon Valdez oil slick near Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, by NOAA

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