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Before the Exxon Valdez caused the second-largest oil spill in US history, Riki Ott stood at the front of a community meeting in Valdez, Alaska, and predicted the future. “It’s not a matter of if, but when a big spill occurs,” warned the author and environmental activist. “And we are not prepared to respond.”
Just a few hours later, the Exxon Valdez pulled out of Alyeska Pipeline’s Valdez terminal with an overworked crew at the helm of a ship with navigation equipment that hadn’t worked in months. At 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989, the tanker struck Bligh Reef. The hull of the 300-meter-long ship ripped open. Oil began spilling into Prince William Sound. The response plan, designed to deal with such an accident, kicked into action—without the main cleanup vessel, which was stuck in dry dock.
Despite four days of clear skies and calm seas, the oil was not contained before stormy weather blew in and scattered it along more than 2,000 kilometers of coastline. By the time the spill was brought under control, the Exxon Valdez had dumped 260,000 barrels of crude. The oil killed hundreds of thousands of birds, mammals, and fish; devastated the commercial fishing industry; ruined tourism for years; and caused long-lasting social impacts.
“It was a nightmare,” says Robert Archibald, a Homer, Alaska, resident and veteran mariner who worked on a tugboat that serviced Alaska’s oil industry at the time of the spill. He later helped with cleanup efforts. “We realized no one in the industry was anywhere close to being able to respond to a spill effectively,” Archibald says.
Blame for the spill and the mismanaged cleanup quickly focused on complacency by industry and government regulators, and the reaction was swift and wide-reaching. Within weeks, the state pushed the oil industry to adopt a stricter regime of safety protocols, environmental regulations, and oversight. A little more than a year later, the state legislature passed the new rules into law.
Then, on August 18, 1990, US President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90). The massive piece of legislation rewrote the rules for the entire oil and gas industry nationwide, and backed up the Alaska state legislation.
On the milestone of OPA90’s 30th anniversary, many in the oil and shipping industries, as well as in the environmental movement, still consider the act the global standard for oil spill prevention and response.
“I do believe it is the most effective regulation of its kind,” says Cynthia Hudson, the CEO of HudsonAnalytix, a maritime safety consulting firm.
“It held the feet to the fire of government and industry to do better,” says Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant who works on oil spill prevention.
The most important piece of OPA90, says Steiner, was the creation of regional citizens’ advisory councils (RCACs).
The councils provide a counterbalance to industry and government, explains Brooke Taylor, director of communications for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (PWSRCAC). Industry weighs the environment against profits, and politicians and government regulators can be swayed by oil and gas interests. But the councils, made up of local residents representing stakeholders such as local communities, Indigenous people, and fishing and tourism industries, have different priorities.
“It’s important that the people with the most to lose from an oil spill have a say in the industry that puts their livelihoods and communities at risk,” Taylor says.
Steiner had pushed Alaska to adopt a citizens’ advisory council in 1986 after seeing the setup in action in Scotland, but the oil industry rejected the idea. After the Exxon Valdez spill, however, state and federal legislators mandated the creation of two RCACs—one to manage the tanker route through Prince William Sound, and another for Cook Inlet, where dozens of oil platforms dot the water.
RCACs don’t have the power to change laws or enforce regulations. They’re composed of advisors who seek expert opinions and then communicate with government and the public, telling them what they’d like to see. But it’s enough to get results. The RCACs pushed the industry to adopt double-hulled tankers, develop better oil cleanup technology, enforce regular training and practice exercises, and beef up tug and escort systems, among other steps. Many of these rules have become global best practices.
“The councils have worked better than I ever thought they could,” says Steiner. “I sleep better at night knowing they’re watching what industry and government are doing.”
Citizens’ councils also help build trust, says Patience Faulkner, an Indigenous elder from Eyak, Alaska, and board member of the PWSRCAC. In 1989, she worked as a paralegal, processing claims from fishermen and others impacted by the Exxon Valdez spill. “People were scared,” she says. “They saw the failures and didn’t believe the promises from industry and government.”
Despite growing interest in other jurisdictions to create their own citizens’ councils, members of the two Alaska RCACs are starting to worry that 30 years of work is under threat.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has rolled back dozens of regulations related to safety and oversight of offshore oil drilling and shipping, and has promised to change many more. Then, in March 2020, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) started reviewing state legislation after the oil and gas industry complained it had become “overly burdensome.”
Jason Brune, the commissioner of the ADEC, says the review is nothing to be afraid of. The regulations are hard to read and out of date, he says, referencing fax machines and snail mail. “The focus is on removing red tape and processes that do not add value to preventing and responding to the next spill,” he says. “It is not a rollback of environmental precautions.”
But that is little comfort for those who know how much influence petroleum interests have in a state where more than 70 percent of state revenue comes from the oil and gas sector.
“Alaska is a banana republic,” says Bob Shavelson, the executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental organization. Shavelson says he was kicked off the Cook Inlet RCAC after demanding the oil industry move some storage tanks. He’s now on the board of the PWSRCAC. But with low oil prices, declining oil production (now at a quarter of its 1988 peak), and the state running a US $1.3-billion deficit (before COVID-19), Shavelson worries what else might get tossed out along with the fax machine.
For Taylor, the recent moves give her a feeling of déjà vu. The Exxon Valdez was the last major Alaska oil spill, and many of the people who experienced it have moved or died. Despite efforts by the advisory councils to educate younger generations and newcomers about the impacts of the spill, it’s not the same as living through it. And now, with more than 240 tankers moving through Prince William Sound every year, she worries industry and government are pushing to relax regulations.
“It feels like in the last few years we’ve come full circle,” she says. “Complacency is creeping back in. We might be getting towards the ‘someday’ the advisory council and OPA90 were created to prevent.”