BP Played Pivotal Role in Exxon Valdez Disaster

Going green — By Stephanie on May 26, 2010 at 6:53 am
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Oil slick in Gulf of Mexico (May 17, 2010) (image from NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr)

From the hours immediately following the BP Gulf Oil catastrophe that began with the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig the comparisons to the Exxon Valdez atrocities began.  Yet, 21 years later, the extent of the interconnectedness of the two ecological destructions was unknown until recently.

The Associated Press (AP) ran a story yesterday showing that BP played a pivotal role in the Exxon Valdez disaster:

… the leader of botched containment efforts  in the critical hours after the tanker ran aground wasn’t Exxon Mobil Corp. It was BP PLC, the same firm now fighting to plug the Gulf leak.

I recall being horrified by the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.  And, yet the recent oil spill could be many times greater – both in volume and environmental impact.

Consider this information from the AP story:

BP owned a controlling interest in the Alaska oil industry consortium that was required to write a cleanup plan and respond to the spill two decades ago. It also supplied the top executive of the consortium, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. Lawsuits and investigations that followed the Valdez disaster blamed both Exxon and Alyeska for a response that was bungled on many levels.

People who had a front row seat to the Alaska spill tell The Associated Press that BP’s actions in the Gulf suggest it hasn’t changed much at all.

The Gulf leak has grown to at least 6 million gallons since an oil rig exploded April 20, killing 11, and is almost certain to overtake Valdez as the nation’s worst oil spill.

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Oil soaked Pelican from the Gulf Coast (image from IBRRC on Flickr)

Watching the evening news on NBC last night, it certainly leads one to question the effectiveness of the current efforts in the Gulf Coast.   Some of the people interviewed wondered if people would have been more outraged/responsive if the spill had happened off the East Coast, closer to Washington, D.C.  What do you think?  Be sure to share in the comment section below.

In the meantime, consider how the AP Story tells exactly how BP played a pivotal role in Exxon Valdez:

The Alaska spill occurred just after midnight on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker carrying more than 50 million gallons of crude hit a reef after deviating from shipping lanes at the Valdez oil terminal. Years of cost cutting and poor planning led to staggering delays in response over the next five hours, according to the state commission’s report.

What could have been an oil spill covering a few acres became one that stretched 1,100 miles, said Walter Parker, the commission’s chairman.

“They were not prepared to respond at all,” Parker said, referring to Alyeska. “They did not have a trained team … The equipment was buried under several feet of snow.”

The commission’s report dedicated an entire chapter to failures by Alyeska, which was formed by the oil companies to run a pipeline stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the Valdez terminal. BP had the biggest stake in the consortium and essentially ran the first days of containment efforts in Prince William Sound an inlet on the south coast of Alaska.

“What happened in Alaska was determined by decisions coming from (BP in) Houston,” Plater said.

Alyeska officials were notified within minutes of the Valdez spill, but it took seven hours for the consortium to get its first helicopter in the air with a Coast Guard investigator. A barge that was supposed to be carrying containment equipment had to be reloaded and did not arrive on the scene until 12 hours after the spill.

During the spill, Alyeska only had enough booms to surround a single tanker. The few skimmers it had to scoop up oil were out of commission once they filled up because no tank barge was available to handle recovered oil.

“Exxon quickly realized Alyeska was not responding, so 24 hours into the spill Exxon without consultation said, ‘We’re taking it over,’” said Dennis Kelso, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “That was not necessarily a bad thing.”

BP’s role in the Valdez spill has been far less publicized than Exxon’s, in part because the state commission wanted to stay focused and avoid fingerpointing by saying who ran Alyeska in its report. Plater said he now regrets that approach.

“In retrospect, it could’ve focused attention on BP and created transparency which would’ve changed the internal culture,” he said. “As we see the internal culture appears not to have changed with tragic results.”

According to Alyeska, BP owned a controlling 50.01 percent share in the consortium in 1989, while a half-dozen other oil companies had smaller stakes. Since then, BP’s share in Alyeska has dropped to 46.9 percent, with the next highest owner Conoco-Phillips Inc. at 28.3 percent. The consortium works like a corporation with owners voting based on their percentage shares.

Alyeska’s chief executive officer was in 1989, and is currently, a BP employee who’s on the company payroll, said Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan.

BP spokesman Robert Wine declined by e-mail to comment on the company’s role in the Valdez spill, saying the incident was already examined thoroughly.

“We can’t add to something that has been so thoroughly and publicly investigated in the past, and the results of which have been so robustly and effectively implemented,” he said.

Many who observed both disasters say there are striking parallels.

For example, during BP’s permit process for the Deepwater Horizon, the company apparently predicted a catastrophic spill was unlikely and if it were to happen, the company had the best technology available. Prior to the 1989 spill, Alyeska made a similar case, arguing that such a spill was unlikely and would be “further reduced because the majority of the tankers … are of American registry and all of these are piloted by licensed masters or pilots.”

Critics say the tools in both spills have been largely the same, as has BP’s lack of preparedness. Then as now, the cleanup tools used across the industry are booms, skimmers and dispersants.

David Pettit, who helped represent Exxon after the Alaska spill, said he knew BP was the “main player in Alyeska” even though everyone at the time was more focused on Exxon’s role.

“This is the same company that was drilling in 5,000 feet of water in 2010 knowing that what they had promised … was no more likely to do any good now than it did in 1989,” said Pettit, now a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s the same cleanup techniques.”

For the Gulf spill, a 100-ton containment box had to be built from scratch and wasn’t deployed until two weeks after the spill, leading some to question why such emergency measures weren’t ready to begin with.

“If you’ve told the government there’s not a serious risk of a major spill, why should you spend shareholder money building a 100-ton steel box you’ve publicly claimed you don’t think you’ll ever use?” said Pettit.

I sit here and wring my hands hoping that we can do something to effectively address the BP oil spill.  Learning that BP had a role in Exxon Valdez (and as a lawyer, knowing about the decades of litigation, lawyers and more that was involved even then), I am both sad and hopeful that we can find a satisfactory outcome for this ecological disaster.

What do you think?  How has the BP oil spill changed your perceptions?

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  1. Tara says:

    I agree with you there Steph. It’s amazing sometimes that companies don’t learn/adjust from earlier mistakes…especially when they can have such a devastating impact on so many lives.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Its overwhelming – the magnitude of the disaster, the finger-pointing and excuses. The BP oil spill is going to define this decade’s energy policies one way or another.

  3. Peter Garner says:

    It’s an unbelievable disaster, and I agree, one caused by lessons that should previously have been learnt. If Mr Obama holds BP financially responsible for the disaster I believe it could see them bankrupt: that ought to be a wake-up call for the oil industry!

    The other thing I’d say is that if this had happened in the North Sea off the UK, the resulting slick could have potentially destroy an entire *country’s* ecosystem. Maybe they’ve thought of that?

  4. Kathy says:

    The bp oil spill is horrific we can go to the moon but cant stop the oil. There is something wrong with this picture. They spent millions on research for this project was that on how to destroy the earth. Something has to be done were all the genius now when we need them.

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