Lo, the media assures me: British Petroleum’s oil leak in the Gulf is our nation’s premier environmental disaster.
The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press – the right and left of
American journalism – both agree: our BP leak transcends by far the fabled Exxon ship disaster of March 24, 1989 which knocked Alaska on its financial keister.
Well, it is, and it isn’t. On paper it should be the worst man-made damage to the ecology ever inflicted. The Exxon Valdez was only one ship with a paltry 53 million gallons of petroleum, only 11 million of which leaked onto Alaska’s shoreline, while the BP imbroglio features a hole in the ocean bottom spewing up unlimited quantities of oil.
But so far, thanks to preventative techniques such as blocking booms and dispersant chemicals, damage to the Louisiana shoreline can’t yet compare to the misery Alaska suffered. Missing are those myriad of photographs of Alaskan birds and animals covered with tar, or herds of panicked ecological volunteers scrubbing beaches with rags and tissues. This doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of misery ahead. With an unlimited amount of oil shooting up from a hole in the ocean floor, the possibility of unfunny events is endless.
What is not missing are the gangs of treasure-hunting lawyers who rush in after every disaster looking for someone to sue. As of this posting, 130 suits have been filed against BP and its contractor. A word search of the internet reveals law-firm blogs assuring the public that: “Individuals and businesses impacted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill resulting from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion are entitled to collect damages for loss of income and profits and our oil spill lawyers can help. Such damage claims are allowed under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.” And all this legal frenzy comes before anyone knows what, if anything, caused the disaster.
Completely unexpected and with few defenses available, the Exxon spill of 1989 quickly inundated Prince William Sound, then spread to cover 10,000 square miles of sea and 1,500 miles of Alaska shoreline. In her book, Going Rogue, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin described the result:
“…the effects rippled through the state like aftershocks. Todd (husband) knew immediately that it would have an effect on all wild Alaska fish products, which today make up an $8 billion industry and produce more than 62 percent of all the United States’ wild seafood.
“‘There will be a taint on our fish, too, Sarah,’ he told me, referring to the harvest from Bristol Bay, as well as fisheries farther north. ‘Buyers will assume all Alaska salmon is oiled. Watch prices drop this summer.’
“He was right, fishermen watched helplessly as fish processors posted the price they ‘d pay for our wild salmon caught that season; it plummeted by 65 percent, from $2.35 to 80 cents a pound. The fish still fetched ten times that much more once it hit markets in the Lower 48 and overseas, but processors insisted they could pay the fishermen only minimal prices for a product perceived as ‘tainted.’
“With the polluted Sound un-fishable and incomes dried up, banks repossessed scores of commercial fishing vessels, leaving hundreds of people jobless, unable to pay their mortgages and other bills. Entire commercial salmon and herring fisheries closed after the disaster. And fallout yielded more fallout – not only bankruptcies and foreclosures, but (due to poor choices sometimes made in the face of adverse circumstances) divorces, alcohol abuse, and even suicides.”
And that was just for openers. Eventually the spiraling waves of economic disaster impacted nearly every Alaskan in greater or lesser degree. Ahead were years and decades of court fights in an attempt to get Exxon-Mobil to pay for the mess it had created. Five days after the disaster Exxon publicly vowed to make all damage claims good. Twenty years later they still hadn’t made that promise good. Sarah described Big Oil opponents in these battles thusly:
“When you deal with oil executives you have to remember that they are used to winning. They also spend a lot of time in foreign countries dealing with leaders who carry pistols and whose bodyguards carry AK-47s. Meanwhile, the executives themselves are armed with bottomless bank accounts and highly trained platoons of fire-breathing lawyers. …A $20 million fine? Pocket change.”
Despite their dedication to winning, the macho oil moguls finally tasted defeat after 20 years of litigation. Sarah, who had been a young mother-to-be when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, grew up in those decades; as governor she got to deliver the coup de grace to Exxon. Alaska’s attorney general took the case to the U.S. Supreme court and won. Alaskans got some of their losses back.
Some of Sarah’s most intense battles as governor were against Big Oil, and, co-incidentally enough, British Petroleum. “Prior to the election,” she wrote, “it had been revealed that BP had been trying to save money for years by cutting corners on oil pipeline maintenance on the North Slope. This was very serious: leaks and spills from corroded pipelines were all too common and harmed the environment plus led to production slowdowns.
“So, one of my first priorities was to establish the Petroleum Systems Integrity Office (PSIO). With creation of the PSIO, Alaska became the first state to require industry operators to document their compliance with maintenance and quality assurance standards, and to share that information with the state.” (Seems Sarah and Alaska were somewhat ahead of the federal government in that regard.)
I have to admit, my attitude toward British Petroleum has been a real love-hate thingy. They do make suspicious and stingy moves, like the oil pipeline leaks and the alleged cost-cutting caper on their drilling rig which exploded and created the current international hoorah. But at the same time, they ransack the world for crude oil, pack it on tankers and bring it to this country at a reasonable price for the laudable purpose of keeping my Ford truck humming.
No one else – environmentalists, politicians, journalists, Congress, or Barrack Obama – have offered for love or money to take over this job. And until someone does, I’ll have to get along with BP and its fellow oily moguls. My heap won’t operate on sunshine, wind power, hydrogen or electricity. Methane is nice, but I’m not equipped for it, and there aren’t many natural gas stations around. Alcohol might make it move in slow, herky-jerky fashion – the same way it makes me function.
Don’t talk to me about Buck Rogers when I’m stuck with 20th century technology.