David KnottCampaign group Greenpeace never gives advance warnings of protest stunts, but a forthcoming anniversary will put oil companies on their guard.
On Mar. 24, it will be 10 years since Exxon Corp.'s Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, releasing more than 250,000 bbl of crude oil into the water.
While Exxon Valdez was not the biggest tanker spill-Greenpeace claims there have since been at least seven larger tanker spills around the world-it certainly had the most impact on the public consciousness.
Greenpeace said that, by February 1999, only two species of local wildlife-bald eagles and river otters-had recovered from the spill's effects: "Harbor seals, three species of cormorants, harlequin ducks, pigeon guillemots, and a pod of killer whales are still listed as 'not recovering.'"
Matthew Spencer, Greenpeace campaigner, told OGJ that the group views the 10th anniversary of the spill as a significant moment: "It gives us a chance to reflect on the overall direction of the oil industry."
Hot topicAsked whether the industry's environmental performance had improved since Exxon Valdez, Spencer said a more important consideration was "whether the people responsible for the collective good-politicians-have got any better at regulating the industry.
"There is not much evidence for this. The oil industry has clearly made changes, but there has not been any significant improvement on the industry's environmental impact on a worldwide scale."
Archie Smith, chief executive of Oil Spill Response Ltd., Southampton, U.K., told OGJ he had just returned from an international oil spill conference in Seattle, at which Exxon Valdez had been a hot topic.
Smith said "earthy" and local commercial groups in Alaska were continuing to put pressure on government and oil companies, because they felt Exxon had not pulled its weight since the spill.
"But these groups," said Smith, "did not tackle the issue of improved response capability-they could not have tackled it-in the years since the spill."
Main driverSmith said the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) was the main driver for improving offshore spill response and arose directly out of the Exxon Valdez spill (OGJ, Oct. 18, 1993, p. 21).
"OPA 90 was in some ways an over-reaction," said Smith, "but it increased the industry's preparedness for spills, through means such as better planning and better availability of dispersants."
Besides improvements in oil dispersant methods, Smith noted that in the U.K., for example, OPA 90 led to a requirement for port and harbor authorities and offshore installations operators to carry out spill risk assessments.
"Now the industry has a much better understanding of the risks of spills from its operations," said Smith, "and much better preparedness. On this point, I think Greenpeace would find it hard to reply."
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