A Spill’s Dirty Secret

Commentary / by Charles Wohlforth /

Just as with the Exxon Valdez spill of more than 20 years ago, the recovery efforts for the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico are destined for inadequacy.

Credit: EPA Smart Growth

On April 20, a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire. Two days later it sank, killing 11 workers. Oil erupted uncontrollably from the sea floor at a rate of nearly 800,000 liters a day, if not more. The oil spread into a giant slick, poisoning marine life and threatening the Gulf coast from Louisiana eastward. For three weeks, as the news got progressively worse, unprepared responders came up with improvised solutions. Criticism of BP and government officials mounted as those solutions failed to deliver significant results.

If you’ve already been through a major oil spill, the progression of the story in the news media repeated familiar elements. Because responses to large spills usually fail, reporting generally portrays oil industry and government officials as incompetent.

They may indeed be incompetent. But that’s not the moral of the story.

I spent years covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftereffects for the Anchorage Daily News and writing about it in my new book The Fate of Nature. This week, I’ve fielded calls from reporters covering BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico asking me how to do it—major oil spills are rare and most reporters have never seen one in person.

I’d never seen one when I became the first reporter to witness oil’s landfall in Prince William Sound, 21 years ago, on a cobbled beach on Naked Island, where black muck came to the top of my rubber boots. Someone pulled a dead cormorant from the blackness by its long neck, its graceful shape hidden by oil.

When you’re in the middle of the disaster, it’s impossible not to feel outrage and betrayal. The journalist’s strongest instinct is to find and highlight the faults in the spill response and the dishonesty of those responsible for it.

Exxon did so much wrong in 1989. Plans were inadequate, and the equipment described in the inadequate plans wasn’t available. Command was disjointed and disorganized. At first Exxon executives worked from hotel rooms, without proper communications, knowing nothing about the area, embroiled in chaos. Nothing potentially effective was even attempted until oil had already spread many miles over beaches and through channels.

The extent of the failure became clear when I learned that cleanup workers were being sent out on boats so we could see them depart for work on the beaches, but then they never went anywhere. Without equipment or a plan, they drifted aimlessly in the harbor until they could be seen to return after a day’s work.

When reporters blew the cover on that ruse, the recovery crews began voyaging to oiled shores with rags. I spent a day with workers who sat on a beach rubbing pebbles one at a time. They made careful little piles of their cleaned rocks, perhaps so they would have some sense they were accomplishing something amid the 40 million liters of spilled crude that spread over more than 1,500 kilometers of shoreline.

We told these stories. We challenged officials and saw them removed and replaced with higher officials. More equipment and people arrived. Still ineffective, the process repeated. The Coast Guard replaced commanders with admirals, and then higher admirals. Exxon brought in more workers and fleets of vessels, it built floating hotels in the wilderness, and barges that could spray hot water on the shore with fire-hose force.

More than 10,000 workers worked for a summer to wash glue-like oil from cold rocks. After spending more than $2 billion and inflicting untold additional environmental damage through their efforts, the cleanup recovered, at most, 5 to 7 percent of the oil. Some oil still remains in the beaches.

Eventually I realized I had covered the wrong story. The important point wasn’t that Exxon couldn’t clean up its oil spill. The point was, no one could clean it up.

By telling the story of the company’s incompetence, we had perpetuated the myth that real cleanup of a major oil spill is possible. We had left the industry free to say that next time, with proper preparation and equipment, they would be able to recover any spilled oil.

The truth is that when large amounts of oil go into the ocean, it’s a huge success to recover as much as 10 percent. More than that is rarely possible. Oil spreads too rapidly and reacts too quickly with the environment; and the ocean is a challenging place to work, especially considering the logistics of speedily gathering up a blob the size of a small state.

Not every large spill causes devastating damage. Sometimes we get lucky. But if damage is in the cards, nature is generally too big and too unpredictable for human beings to change that outcome.

People who have spent time on the sea, in storms, on remote, intricate coasts, in currents, and amid the unfathomable complexity of salt marshes and estuaries know instinctively that human efforts can’t wrap these places in a protective shield. And every other method of spill response—toxic chemical dispersants, oil burning, or shoreline cleanup—produces its own damage and disruption.

Oil spill are inevitable. Everyone makes mistakes. And when spills do happen, cleanup can’t prevent environmental damage. That’s the simple truth we need to be told about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For within that truth lies our fundamental decision: whether to value oil or the coastal environment. We’d like to have it otherwise. It feels better to blame the environmental costs of petroleum on greedy oil companies. And I think they are greedy—I’m not interested in giving them a break. But as a society we’re not compelled to allow drilling that puts these precious places at risk. We could instead choose to not drill offshore, then let energy prices rise accordingly and switch to the alternative fuels that would become economically viable.

That choice is being made right now, not on the Gulf Coast, but in the Arctic. One of the largest oil companies in the world, Shell, is mobilizing to begin exploratory drilling off Alaska’s Arctic Coast in less than 60 days.

If that work leads to a major spill, a cleanup will certainly fail—the chances of any degree of “success” are even worse in that remote, icy environment than in the Gulf. When it does fail, we shouldn’t pillory hapless Shell responders for any dead walruses or polar bears. They would only be scapegoats for choices we are making now.

Charles Wohlforth is an author based in Alaska. His latest book is The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Save the Earth

Originally published May 10, 2010

Tags environment policy politics

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM