It’s been twenty-three years since I woke up and heard the radio announcer say, “The Exxon Valdez is on the rocks of Bligh Reef and leaking oil.”
Those of us who lived in Valdez and worked through the next three years of industrial strength oil-spill clean-up would have been shocked in disbelief to know that twenty-three years later nothing will have changed.
As I write, Shell is unceremoniously towing two rusting drilling platforms into Arctic waters far more forbidding than the gentle inlets and bays of Prince William Sound 1,000 miles south, where Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in North America. The fragile rigs face winters of crushing ice constantly on the move, creating craggy pressure ridges as the ice is thrust back and forth by winds and currents. Just like the Deepwater Horizon, they will be drilling holes in deep pools of crude oil and bringing it to the surface, through ever-shifting ice, in waters replete with marine mammals and fish.
An oil spill in the Arctic is nothing like an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There is no industrial infrastructure in the Far North, no roads, no deep water ports, no airports, no oil spill equipment, no thousands of volunteers for clean-up crews. There is, however, plenty of ice, snow, temperatures to 60 below zero. Do you know what happens to machinery at 60 below? It stops, unless you keep it running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if it stops, it’s unlikely it will start again until Summer, such as it is. Metal becomes brittle and breaks. Plastic and rubber solidify and crumble. Diesel oil congeals. Propone turns to liquid. Pour out a cup of coffee in the open air and it vaporizes with a WHOOSH! before it hits the ice. It’s a strange, dark, icy world, where nothing is as it is in the Lower 48.
And yet, the oil execs say, “Trust us.” Just as Exxon did so many times in 1989.
The one lesson we learned in Prince William Sound is that once the oil is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in. This was in Alaska’s banana belt, with temperate rain forests gracing the shores, warm summer weather, an international airport in Anchorage just 250 miles away, smaller airports nearby in Valdez, Cordova and Kodiak. A highway from Anchorage to Valdez. Oil spill equipment stockpiled at the Alyeska Marine Terminal Facility.
None of this exists in the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas.
Drilling for oil in the Arctic is just one more environmental disaster waiting to happen.
When do we say, “Enough?’
Won’t we ever say, “No more?”