Oil Drilling Debate Rages on, 20 Years After the Valdez Spill

President Obama has an unusual opening to shape the nation's offshore drilling policy.

The oil tanker Exxon Valdez.

The oil tanker Exxon Valdez.

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Twenty years ago today, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran into a reef in southern Alaska's Prince William Sound, after its crew, hoping to dodge breakaway ice from a nearby glacier, steered it out of the tanker lanes. More than 11 million gallons of oil were spilled in the crash, triggering one of the worst ecological disasters in U.S. history.

The disaster was a catalyst for major changes within the oil industry. Congress quickly passed tougher safety laws, and oil companies gradually adopted more advanced technology. Today, these improvements are one of the main pieces of evidence politicians cite for opening new areas of the U.S. coastline to drilling. Nevertheless, as most politicians and industry executives admit, the environmental risks have not been—and cannot be—eliminated completely.

Now the Obama administration is being forced to enter into this debate. First, there's the ongoing discussion about whether to open Alaska's oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. A similar question lingers over potentially oil-rich areas off the nation's coastlines.

Because restrictions on oil drilling on the outer continental shelf were lifted last year—first by President Bush, then by Congress—President Obama arguably has more freedom and leeway than any other president in the past quarter century to shape the country's oil drilling policy. And yet, as developments in the decades since the Valdez spill illustrate, there are difficult realities—economic, environmental, and security related—that still have to be weighed.

On one hand, significant, real-life safety reforms have been adopted since the accident. In 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, requiring oil tankers in the region to have double rather than single hulls (making them more resistant to penetration and reducing the volume of potential spills by up to 60 percent). The last single-hull boat is expected to go out of service by 2012, says Stan Jones of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. Meanwhile, a pair of escort tugboats now helps all tankers navigate through treacherous waters, and tankers have been outfitted with GPS technology to enable the Coast Guard to track them.

Anecdotally, these changes appear to have prevented accidents: Since the early 1990s, there have been at least half a dozen incidents in which tankers experienced propulsion troubles or strayed from their lanes in Prince William Sound and needed tugboat assistance to be taken back to safety. In one case, in 1995, a tanker came within half a ship length of grounding. Such cases illustrate both the progress and unavoidable peril of transporting oil in cold water.

A similar question of risk comes up with oil exploration itself. As far back as 2000, an Energy Department report found that "new technology is delivering...more efficient recovery of oil and gas resources, smaller footprints, and cleaner, safer operations." Much of the improvement involves new rigs and drilling techniques, in particular horizontal or directional drilling that allows companies to extract more oil with fewer wells.

But such technologies have their limits. In 2006, a report for members of Congress who were looking at drilling along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge noted that, despite technological advances, "it is unlikely that full development of the Coastal Plain could be accomplished from a single compact site." Rather, it said, "development could require a dispersed network of drill pads, roads, pipelines, gravel mines, and other structures," with impacts potentially lasting decades.

And then there is the matter of actual spills. Behind the chants of "drill, baby, drill," this became something of an issue in last year's presidential campaign, when Sen. John McCain, calling for more drilling, argued that Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused "no significant spillage." The truth, it turns out, is not so clear cut. According to the Interior Department, the two hurricanes together caused 165 spills, although there were no shoreline or wildlife effects.