Lessons Learned?

Looking at the Gulf disaster from a West Coast point of view


Sometime after midnight on March 24, 1989, I was awakened by a phone call. Within hours, I was climbing a rope ladder to the deck of the Exxon Valdez. The grounded tanker would drain 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The oil would eventually reach parts of some 1,200 miles of coastline, enough to span California’s coast and Oregon’s, too. Twenty-one years later, oil remains in the beaches of Prince William Sound.

Back in 1989, I was Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation. It was my job to oversee the response for the state and enforce cleanup standards. I worked on the spill and its aftermath for two years. Today, I’m executive vice president of Ocean Conservancy. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in the Gulf of Mexico witnessing a new disaster.

The BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, like Exxon Valdez before it, was a breakdown of an industrial system that we had been assured would not fail. In fact, the federal agency that approves drilling leases and plans considers the odds of such a blowout to be so “insignificant” as to be irrelevant to its environmental risk analyses. A generation after the Exxon Valdez, we still do not take those risks properly into account, and our addiction to oil still threatens our coastal communities, wildlife, economy and ocean—the life-support system for our planet.

What are the risks for California? New leases are prohibited in state waters, and new leases for federal waters off California were not included in the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Strategy released by President Obama in March. But California still has 27 active drilling platforms, and 36 leases sold before 1984 have yet to be tapped. The risk remains.

Let’s heed the lessons from the Gulf of Mexico and Prince William Sound. Consider what is at stake: Our state ranks first in both employment and gross state product from ocean-related activities. Our coastal economy is driven not by petroleum, but by hotel rooms and surf shops, by fish tacos and kayak rentals. Tourism and coastal-dependent businesses generate about $43 billion annually for our state. Imagine the impact of an Exxon Valdez or BP Deepwater Horizon off the California coast. Imagine people without jobs, businesses without customers, otters matted in oil, tide pools filled with tar balls and whales breaching through iridescent slicks of crude oil.

The president must demand accountability for Deepwater Horizon. BP, Halliburton and other corporations must be held fully responsible for the cleanup. Communities and businesses must be compensated. The Gulf ecosystem must be restored. A failure of this magnitude also demands an independent commission to investigate and to ensure it never happens again anywhere in the United States. California and the entire West Coast should be declared off-limits to new drilling. On a positive note, we have seen proposals in the U.S. House and Senate to do just that.

In the final analysis, as BP Deepwater Horizon has made clear, we need a new national energy policy. New drilling only feeds our addiction to oil and will do little to end our dependence on foreign supplies. Instead, America must move toward greater energy efficiency and conservation. We must also pursue faster, cheaper, safer options. Lastly, we must heed the lessons of the Exxon Valdez, as a new catastrophe calls us to action. If we do, no American will ever again have to witness the disasters or the harm to coastal residents that I have seen.

Dennis Takahashi-Kelso serves as executive vice president of Ocean Conservancy. As Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he worked for two years on response and restoration, as well as on reforms to federal spill response and liability laws.

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