On March 24, 1989, in conditions believed near ideal for an oil spill cleanup, the biggest dump of crude in North American history began to gush into the ocean near the northern edge of the continent. Within days, 11 million gallons of North Slope oil leaked from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez into Alaska's Prince William Sound and began to demonstrate that the oil spill cleanup technology of the day was a joke.
Twenty-one years and a month later, a spill to rival the Exxon Valdez smeared the ocean along the opposite edge of the continent. As the slick moved toward the Louisiana shore on Thursday, cleanup efforts were beginning to look a lot like a replay of the fiasco that followed the Exxon grounding.
"It is definitely like deja vu all over again," said Stan Jones, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Committee, an observer of the 1989 Valdez spill, and a witness to a huge number of oil spill drills and oil spill cleanup demonstrations in the years since. Despite advances in cleanup technology, Jones said, there is still "a huge component of wishful thinking."
Off the Louisiana coast, BP -- the British corporation responsible for the latest spill -- tried bombing crude with dispersants, which didn't work, and the U.S. Coast Guard tried burning, which it claimed worked in a test but had not expanded beyond the test stage because of rough seas.
This time, oil is not leaking from a tanker run onto a marked reef in sheltered waters by an incompetent crew, but rather bubbling up from a bore hole left deep in the ocean far offshore beneath the wreckage of the BP drill rig Deepwater Horizon. The sticky political problem that came with the crude, however, is similar -- a huge oil slick moving toward sensitive beaches while everyone debates what to do.
Events unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico are bringing home for those in the oil industry the painful reality that effective cleanup is still more a dream than a reality. And environmental organizations see in this a new opportunity to stop arctic offshore drilling not only in Alaska but in other coastal areas. By Thursday, they were actively trying to exploit an advantage in the ever-shifting politics of petroleum while politicians scurried in all sorts of directions with their thumbs in the air searching for the prevailing political wind.
Some, like Republican-turned-independent Florida Gov. Charlie Christ and Democrats in his state, were rapidly backing away from offshore oil development. A few, like Alaska Rep. Mike Hawker, a Republican, were stressing the tough compromises that must be made to satisfy America's thirst for fuel. And still others, like half-term ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, were strangely silent.
Former vice-presidential candidate Palin, whose national energy plan was built around the theme "Drill baby drill!", could not be reached for comment, and the Facebook page on which she has regularly issued missives on the big political stories of the day is so far having nothing to do with the Louisiana oil spill.
There are plenty of others making noise, however, as environmental groups and so-called non-government organizations begin revving up their public-relations machinery.
Plans by Shell Oil to begin drilling this summer in the remote and pristine Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska's arctic coast came almost immediately under attack.
"The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) has given Shell the green light to drill offshore exploration wells in the U.S. Arctic Ocean this summer where the challenges of coping with an oil rig blowout would far surpass those related to BP's Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico," read a press release from Oceans North, an organization backed by the Pew Trust. The MMS environmental study is already the subject of a lawsuit pending in the U.S. Circuit Court.
Critics argue that oil developers and government agencies have minimized the risks of drilling and overplayed the challenges of a cleanup. There really are no good choices when crude oil gets loose on water, as Alaskans know well. Exxon spent more than $2 billion trying to clean up its mess, and yet pockets of oil remain in Prince William Sound to this day.
In the Gulf of Mexico, said Jeff Short, a scientist with the environmental group Oceana, cleanup crews have more tools with which to work. They can at least try dispersants and burning to make sticky crude disappear.
Dispersants work poorly in cold water, however, and burning in the Arctic can be problematic. "It's like trying to set fire to a charcoal briquette with a Bic lighter," Short said. He and others believe there is no way to clean up an arctic spill before it damages endangered polar bears, threatens seals and generally creates havoc in one of the world's more sensitive ecosystems.
"It says to us some of the things that your friendly NGO has been saying for more than 20 years," Jones added. "The key is prevention. The way to avoid this is total vigilance."
The inadequacy of cleanup, he said, should underline not only why offshore drilling needs to be approached cautiously, but why Congress needs to pass a law mandating tug escorts for oil tankers leaving Valdez continue forever. The tugs have been shadowing tankers -- one on either side -- since the Exxon Valdez grounding, but there has been talk of phasing them out as the shipping industry shifts to double-bottom tankers.
Double-bottom boats are a good idea, Jones said, but keeping tankers off the rocks is even better. The same could be said for preventing oil spill blowouts so they don't end up spewing oil as is continuing to happen in the Gulf of Mexico -- now at a rate pegged at about 210,000 gallons of crude per day.
Curtis Smith, the spokesman for Shell in Alaska, has been trying all week to stress the solid track record "blowout preventers" have in Alaska and elsewhere. The oil industry has been punching holes in Cook Inlet off Anchorage since the 1960s without a significant accident. The technology for shallow-water drilling is proven, Smith said earlier in the week, noting the key difference between the Deepwater Horizon and other drill rigs. The Deepwater was using cutting edge technology to try to drill a well 5,000 feet down in the ocean.
The rig was floating over a bore hole on April 20 when it exploded for reasons yet unknown, caught fire and eventually sank. Eleven people on the rig died. A blowout preventer that was supposed to close the drill hole on the ocean floor if something went wrong didn't work.
The same thing could happen anywhere, environmentalists charged Thursday.
"MMS's environmental assessments of the impacts of an (Arctic) oil spill during exploration ignores the risk, saying that 'the probability of a large spill occurring during exploration is insignificant and, therefore, this (environmental assessment) does not analyze the impacts of large spills from exploration operations," said a written statement from Oceans North.
Shell's 2010 exploration plan states that "a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact."
Environmentalists said that was unacceptable. Oil company spokespeople were laying low in Alaska Thursday as the situation worsened to the south. Neither Shell nor BP, which plans to begin the world's longest directional drilling operation from an island near the North Slope this summer, would comment on a Wall Street Journal report that the political fallout from the Louisiana spill could be enough to alter U.S. drilling plans.
"Obama administration officials said the disaster could prompt a rethinking of President Barack Obama's recently announced proposal to allow expanded offshore oil and gas leasing," the Journal article read.
Environmentalists say "rethinking" would be a good idea, especially for arctic drilling. They note the difficulty of extracting oil from broken ice. In winter, oil could become encased in ice until spring when it could be retrieved, if it was ever found. Broken-ice conditions in spring and fall could both help and hurt a cleanup operation. Ice may help herd the oil, but skimming it from the surface becomes more challenging. Add darkness, blizzards, wind, fog or stormy seas and the chances of recovering much oil decline further.
Environmentalists also warn that if oil starts spewing in the Chukchi Sea west of Barrow there isn't a port available from which to stage cleanup operations, let alone any of the infrastructure common to ports -- docks, cranes, and facilities for moving supplies.
Not that there are many indications from the Gulf of Mexico that these things would make a huge difference. One key problem there seems to be the same as with the Exxon Valdez spill: It's proving tough for policymakers to make decisions.
Ron Gouget, a former spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Birmingham News Thursday that burning should have started a week ago.
"Like Valdez," he was quoted as saying, "the decisions to get the resources mobilized may not have occurred until it was too late. This whole thing has been a daily strip tease. At first they thought it was just the diesel, then they said the well wasn't leaking. It's unfortunate they didn't get the burning going right away. They could have gotten 90 percent of the oil before it spread."
Stan Jones said no one wants to make such a decision with limited information because they could be proven wrong later. Often, he said, gasoline has to be poured on the water to get the burn started.
"The thing to remember is that if it doesn't work, you just made it worse," he said. Few bureaucrats -- be they on the federal, state or local level -- want to take responsibility for compounding the problem.
The politically safe thing to do is nothing. But if nothing is done, the oil -- in the absence of an offshore wind to push it out into the vastness of the open ocean where it will eventually decay -- drifts until it hits something. Thursday evening, it was drifting toward the Mississippi River delta and some of the most sensitive wetlands in the country. The area was bracing for the impact, the ooze expected to hit any moment. It all sounded too familiar to Alaskans who lived through the Exxon spill.
As the Gulf slick moved steadily toward land, threatening to surpass the Exxon Valdez in scope and impact, one thing was certain: Newly attuned to the risks of offshore drilling, some Americans are going to be looking for more assurance than "drill, baby, drill" can provide before they're willing to get on board with exploration in the Arctic.