Another Exxon Valdez?

23 years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled more than 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters and rich fishing grounds of Prince William Sound.  It was the second largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters, after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating 1,500 miles of shoreline — about the length of California’s coast.

Thousands of birds, sea otters, whales and seals were killed. Many more were harmed in the weeks and years following the spill as the left over oil lowered reproductive rates, stunted growth and contaminated the food chain.  The economies of the fishing villages impacted by the spill have yet to fully recover, and to this day if you walk many of the beaches of the Sound and dig down, you can still find oil.

It was unquestionably one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. One that we cannot afford to forget, even as as oil companies like Shell have their sights set on drilling in the Polar Bear Seas of America’s Arctic this very summer.

The Exxon Valdez disaster illustrated not only the risks of offshore drilling, but also the difficulty of cleaning up a spill in Arctic conditions. After weeks of effort and several failed attempts, Exxon was only able to clean up a small amount of the oil in Alaska’s remote and harsh environment.  Two decades, and many “advances in technology” later, BP was only able to clean up about 3 percent of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  Sub-zero temperatures, shifting ice floes, storms with hurricane force winds and 20 foot seas ensure that a spill in the Arctic today remains impossible to handle. Oil spill response still won’t even work in the Arctic during much of the year.  Yet Shell is pushing forward with plans to drill in the Arctic waters as soon as this summer.

The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, where Shell wants to drill, are home to the entire population of US polar bears.  Here sea ice meets the northern edge of the continent and animals congregate in great numbers.  Known as the “Arctic Ring of Life,” this area is home to millions of migratory birds, beluga and endangered bowhead whales, seals and a host of other animals.

I have been fortunate in my life to spend time in arctic Alaska. I’ve watched walrus gather on ice floes, puffins “fly” through the water and polar bears prowl the ice edge.  I have traveled with Alaska Native people who have lived on these lands and waters for hundreds of generations, depending on whales and other wildlife for subsistence. A major oil spill could leave oil in these waters for decades, killing whales, seals and fish, and bringing an end to Alaska Native’s ancient way of life.

Opening up the Polar Bear Seas and other special places in America’s Arctic will not reduce gas prices or solve our energy challenges, but it will serve as a one-two punch for the Arctic. The region’s population and wildlife will suffer immediate threats from pollution and spills, while long-term increasing our addiction to oil accelerates climate change which is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The only real way to reduce the pain of high oil prices, and the environmental danger posed by new drilling, is to use less oil. We must embrace clean energy solutions that make cars cleaner and more efficient, expand our transportation choices and invest in renewable energy. Unlike new drilling which will only benefit Big Oil, these solutions will help move our country forward.

The Arctic — for now — is still vibrant and alive. When I stand on the coast of the Beaufort Sea this summer I hope to see sandpipers that have winged their way north with millions of other birds, not Shell oil rigs. Please join me in calling on President Obama to save the Arctic, to act now to protect the Polar Bear Seas before this last wild frontier is sacrificed to tomorrow’s oil disaster.

Related Stories:

Shell Sues Sierra Club and Other Environmental Groups Over Arctic Drilling

The High Costs of Oil

Offshore Drilling is No Joke

Photo Credit: Steven Kazlowski


W. C
W. C5 months ago

Thank you.

William C
William Cabout a year ago


Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

federico bortoletto
federico b5 years ago

Bravo Colum N.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

Exxon Valdez still leaves noticeable traces like bathtub ring all along the shoreline where the spill was, BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is still maybe barely half cleaned up. Global warming is rampant. I say let the oil firms finish pumping out the already drilled wells--but NO MORE until we have control of global warming and all the existing mess from fossil fuel has been cleaned up. There is a technological fix for global warming--Enhanced Geothermal Systems that will cost $1 billion (2004 prices) for MIT School of Engineering to finish the engineering R&D needed to mature the technology, plus some "artificial trees" to pull CO2 from air to store temporarily in pressurized tanks to sequester and use as hydraulic fluid in Enhanced Geothermal Systems, plus enough of price on carbon emissions, $35/ton (2004 prices) to bring the cost of coal-fired electricity up to $0.07/kWh (2004 prices) to do. It should be even more valuable as a way to sequester CO2 so we can have our fossil fuel cake and eat it too, than for the electricity generated.

Tracy P.
Desmond A5 years ago

For those of you who blame the oil companies you need to stop and think about the roll you play. Do you own an electric car? A hybrid? Do you own a Hummer or SUV? Do you demand from your congress alternative energy? Because if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. If you go to Holland most people are on bikes in Amsterdam and the cars are 90% small. Here , the USA, Glutton Central, every other person has an SUV and drives everywhere for any reason at any time. Have you ever watched the documentary "who killed the electric car" might be worth a peak, for starters.

Ken W.
Ken W5 years ago

Fu$k shell

Bambi G.
Bambi G5 years ago

Now we have the Gulf of Mexicoil.

Gene Sengstake
Gene Sengstake5 years ago

If we’d all just get up off our butts and actually make a real effort to “be the difference” - maybe good things would start happening - - -

Juliet Defarge
judith sanders5 years ago

Well, DUH.

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