Diane MacEachern

Exxon Valdez Disaster 101

Should oil companies be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Not given what we've learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

To provide a brief recap: Four minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed into Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, creating what remains the world's worst environmental disaster. Eleven million gallons of crude oil, an amount so vast it could have filled 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools, leaked into one of the most bountiful marine ecosystems on the planet, killing 1000 to 2800 sea otters, as many as 250,000 seabirds, over 300 harbor seals, and at least 22 orca whales. Within a week, currents and winds pushed the slick 90 miles from the site of the mishap, out of Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska. It eventually oozed nearly 600 miles away from the wreck, contaminating 1,500 miles of shoreline, about the length of California's coast. The oil didn't stop spreading until it covered 10,000 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and 25 Washington, D.C.s combined.

As serious as these impacts were, it was hoped that they would be immediate and short-term. But according to a scientific research team that has synthesized 14 years of Exxon Valdez oil spill studies, petroleum from the damaged tanker has "persisted beyond a decade in surprising amounts and in toxic forms...with dangerous ripple effects throughout the ecosystem." Reporting their findings in Science magazine in December, 2003, the team repudiated the old paradigm that "oil that grounds on shorelines would be rapidly dispersed and degraded." Instead, their research shows that spilled oil can remain trapped in a rugged environment like Alaska's for years, with consequences that reverberate throughout the environment and should not be ignored.

For example, where the oil was confined under mussel beds, it has been able to get into the food chains of many animals. At the heavily oiled northern Knight Island, mussel-eating sea otters have remained at half their estimated pre-spill numbers with no recovery apparent even by 2000. Meanwhile, sea otters on Montague Island, which escaped despoilation, doubled just in the period from 1995 to 1998. This despite the fact that Exxon spent at least $2 billion trying to clean up the spill.

Originally, it was thought that most seabirds would die quickly in the aftermath of an oil spill, primarily from hypothermia, smothering, drowning or from eating toxins when they preened their feathers. But after 15 years, birds in the Exxon Valdez' wake continue to suffer chronic toxic exposure from ingesting contaminated prey or from foraging around sedimentary pools where oil persisits. Fish like pink salmon also experience stunted growth and other physical deformities many years after the accident.

What does this mean for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Like Prince William Sound prior to March 24, 1989, the Refuge is a haven for wildlife. It provides critical calving habitat for the famed Porcupine River Caribou Herd. It is the most important land-denning area for polar bears in the U.S. Musk oxen live there year round. Wolves, wolverines, and brown bears crisscross its terrain. Each year, over 135 species of birds from four continents flock to the biological "heart" of the Refuge, its coastal plain, to nest and feed.

The five percent of Alaska's North Slope that the Refuge comprises is the only portion closed by law to oil exploration or drilling. The oil industry, propelled by the Bush Administration, is lobbying fiercely to change the rules, even though the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is probably only enough oil under the Arctic Refuge to supply America's needs for six months. Meanwhile, simply requiring tire manufacturers to sell replacement tires with the same rolling resistance as original equipment tires would save 70% more oil than could be economically recovered from the Refuge.

In the final analysis, the undeniable truth is this: If oil drilling is allowed in the Refuge, oil spills will occur. According to the Alaska Dept. of Conservation, an average of 427 oil spills -- more than one a day -- already transpire each year on Alaska's North Slope. There is no reason to believe the Refuge will be spared, especially given the oil industry's record since March 24, 1989: Despite the Exxon Valdez accident, the vast majority of oil shipped from Alaska continues to be carried in outdated, single-hull tankers, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which transports oil from the North Slope to the port of Valdez, leaks and is in dire need of repair.

The 15th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill reminds us that the unspoiled environment that is the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge should remain that way.

The writer is a member of the board of directors of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Do We Need Another Sun Day?

Twenty-five years ago this May 3, as the sun crossed the International Date Line in Auckland, New Zealand, a small band of solar energy enthusiasts rose early to usher in what they hoped would be the dawning of a new energy era powered exclusively by the sun. As what activists call "the only safe nuclear reactor" arced across the globe, hundreds of events in dozens of nations cascaded one after the other, ranging from the spectacular to the sublime. The Citizens Energy Research Institute in Tokyo built a full-scale wind generator in Japan. Photovoltaic cells powered an electric pump and light bulbs in Sweden. A five-mile long "solar clothes dryer" was strung between Miami and Key Biscayne. By the end of the day, almost 30 million people in 2,000 communities in the United States and 31 countries around the world had celebrated Sun Day.

President Carter caught solar fever, boosting America's solar budget by $100 million, installing a solar hot water system on the White House and declaring that the United States should obtain 25 percent of its energy from solar, wind and other renewable energy resources by the year 2000. But as soon as he became president, Ronald Reagan suffered an immediate sun stroke. Within six months of occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he yanked the solar panels off the White House, cut the solar budget over 70 percent, and allowed solar tax credits to lapse that encouraged homeowners to install active and passive solar systems on their houses. Subsequent presidents never revived President Carter's vision for a solar future. Clinton ballyhooed a million solar roof initiative, but failed to bring the idea to fruition. Most Americans don't realize that President George W. Bush's much touted hydrogen car initiative is actually siphoning funding out of geothermal, biomass and other important solar programs in a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In this age of climate change, terrorist attacks, and ongoing concerns about air and water pollution, there should be far greater support at the federal level for solar power, a non-polluting, secure and infinitely abundant domestic energy source. Instead, we spend $30 billion a year just to defend our stake in Middle Eastern oil fields, and that was before the recent war with Iraq.

Ralph Nader once said, "If the oil companies owned the sun, we'd have solar by now."

Amazingly, in the last 25 years, solar has managed to become a viable energy option even though the oil companies don't own the sun and the federal government hasn't been on solar's side, at least in this country. Globally, new renewable energy helps meet the energy needs of more than 300 million people. Wind power, one of the most accessible forms of solar energy, is on the rise, with the world using ten times as much wind energy as it did only a decade ago. Since 1996, global shipments of photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight to electricity, have increased at an average annual rate of 33 percent.

Still, barriers to truly widespread acceptance of solar energy are severe, not the least of which is price. Generating costs for electricity from photovoltaics range from 25 cents to $1 per kilowatt hour, which is extremely high compared to electricity generated by coal or nuclear power plants. Says Scott Sklar, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association from 1986 to 2000, "If just once we could devote just one third of the $30 billion spent defending Middle East oil fields to commercializing photovoltaics, they'd become three to five times cheaper ... and that much more accessible in the marketplace."

In some quarters, the Bush Administration is being accused of having waged the war in Iraq in order to gain access to that country's oil fields as a way of meeting America's ever-increasing energy demands. War or not, continued dependence on foreign petroleum, and determined reliance on environmentally troublesome domestic energy sources like coal and nuclear power do not bode well for any nation that strives for energy independence, national security, and a healthy environment. On this 25th anniversary of Sun Day, the time seems right for our national leaders to revisit the solar goals set on May 3, 1978 and dedicate themselves anew to a sunny, renewable future.

Diane MacEachern is the author of "Save Our Planet: 750 Everyday Ways You Can Help Clean Up The Earth" and "Enough is Enough - How to Organize a Successful Campaign for Change." She writes about the environment from her passive solar home in Takoma Park, Md.

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