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BP showed nothing learned in Exxon spill

Ken Green

Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones have compiled an excellent collection of personal stories from the Exxon Valdez disaster in "The Spill." Today, everyone concerned claims to have learned great lessons from this environmental tragedy. However, the handling of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico gives no such evidence.

An interesting account in "The Spill" comes from a Cordova fisherman, Tom Copeland:

"From day one, the commercial fisherman of Alaska should have been allowed to recover the oil. There is only one group that thinks recovering oil off the sea is an easy task, commercial fishermen ... but everybody thought it was impossibly difficult."

This astute observation brings up two disturbing points. Why were fishermen barred from helping to recover oil? And why did "everybody" think the task was "impossibly difficult"?

The justification for the first question would be: to maintain industry control due to special insider knowledge and skills, and secrecy for security purposes. However, any control and secrecy requirements that were necessary would have been encompassed at the immediate area of the spill; a cordoned "no-entry" circle with a 10-mile or so radius should have more than provided the operators with adequate room for security, logistical and non-interference purposes. Efforts outside of such a designated zone could really in no way hinder industry salvage and repair operations at the accident source. Nor could such efforts pose security threats or "classified" information breaches.

The second question can be understood as a "view from the ramparts" syndrome, or the limited perspective, or tunnel vision, which occurs in leadership during stressful situations: the inability to see outside of the industry. The oil industry leaders at the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster had obviously convinced themselves that they were operating with such safety and were so prepared for any eventuality that there was basically no immediate threat. They were proven catastrophically incorrect. They compounded the problem by erroneously believing that, once it began, they were the only ones who could manage the highly technical disaster that they had themselves manufactured. This is akin to stroking one's own ego to the detriment of all others. They were seeing the "view from on high" by excluding the validity of all other views since; after all, they were the ones with all the volumes of response plans clearly stated in black and white. Had Exxon executives had the capacity to comprehend the complexities, abilities, and special relationship with the sea environment that the fishing community possesses, they would have been able to utilize this segment of the population to everyone's benefit.

Was a lesson learned? The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster indicates absolutely not. The industry, fostered by the government, reacted by blocking out all considerations beyond its own. Has a lesson been learned from the Gulf "spill"? Most likely not. Industry seems to respond from the inside perspective of excluding outsiders. It is a reaction that works against lasting and realistic solutions. Grandiose, all-encompassing response plans are laid out to fulfill industry "standards" and safety regulations, but often prove to be ineffectual in real time. It all looks good on paper, and many issues receive legal coverage, but a false sense of security is perpetuated by this system.

Perhaps a more comprehensive response strategy is for exploratory companies to also investigate the people, skills and resources of their specific target areas, and with this information, formulate campaign plans that can be effective in case of a disaster. Now, that would be a response plan. In case of an oil spill, light, fast and plentiful response from local residents would be very effective, if the oil company was ready with light, easily portable recovery pumping and storage equipment and had a disaster plan in place to disperse and coordinate such action. It causes many problems when companies see themselves egotistically as martyrs carrying the entire load. It belittles everyone else. There should have been, and should now be, industry plans in place for rapid cooperation with local entities for recovery efforts away from primary incident zones.

Ken Green has worked in the oil industry as a geological field technician, drilling fluids engineer and pipeline inspection technician. He is retired and lives in Cooper Landing.