One man’s experience with big Oil

A guest article

I asked and received permission to reproduce a discussion group post written by Wayne Marshall. (The original post can be found in a political debate that took place on a baseball website!) I asked because of Mr. Marshall's past experience as an activist who worked hard to defend his home environment in Alaska against the depredations of big oil and, more importantly, because of the intelligence and spirit expressed by his writing. I believe both testify to the pluck needed by those who wish to contest the power belonging to these mammoth corporations and to the governmental bodies which so often remorselessly serve these corporate interests.

Steve Zielinski

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Is it not apparent by now that there has been little government oversight and regulation, and that this is what numerous presidents and congresses have expected or assented to by their actions and inactions. Those who have cried out for better standards — such as double hulled tankers — were ridiculed as causing too much cost. I find it sad that the State of Florida successfully lobbied for years to prevent any oil lease sales in federal waters near their shores, but now they are suffering from BP's failures in the Gulf.

My current position has not involved working with oil and gas industry issues, but I was heavily involved in the past.

In the later part of the 70's I worked with local communities on Kodiak Island, Alaska who expressed their opposition to OCS lease sale #46. That sale ultimately was cancelled. While the press release announcing the cancellation spoke to concerns expressed at the public hearing, most understood the main reason it was cancelled was because the oil industry was not prepared to pay any real dollars for the lease rights. This was sadly confirmed a year or so later when the Federal Government went forward with OCS lease sale #60 in the Shelikoff Straits; an oil and gas lease sale on the westerly side of the Island that locals protested with equal or greater vigor.

My work with oil industry issues continued off and on throughout the 80's and came to a close when I left Alaska in 1989; just 6 months after the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster. The community I worked with was located over 1,000 miles from the main site of the spill, but I was involved with preliminary preparations in case the oil reached our shores. I offer a few notes from my experience:

The industry always touted the quality of their technology, their ability to respond to a problem, and their track record in not experiencing a major spill. Unfortunately, as proved to be the case with the Exxon Valdez and now the Horizon, the track record of avoiding major disasters means nothing once the disaster occurs. The industry can tout a record of not having any tanker spills of greater than 500,000 gallons in a year, but if the net result is to have a tanker disaster of about 10,000,000 gallons every 20 years, the yearly avoidance record means little. Similarly, if the record is not having any deep water wells blow out and cause spills (spill — what a cute word for the amount of doom that has befallen the Gulf, like I accidently spilled a glass of milk) of less than 100,000 gallons in any particular year, that record means nothing if the net result is to have a disaster every 30 years or so that fouls the Gulf with more than 100,000,000 million gallons of oil. In short, the industry speaks to their record of avoiding problems, but once a major problem occurs, the industry is ill prepared to respond.

The oil industry will always find a way to go get the oil and they are willing to spend the needed money — man made gravel islands in the ice pack, the trans-Alaska pipeline, and the Deepwater Horizon as examples — but they commit few resources to effective clean-up technology. It is sad that one of the most effective clean-up methods is the equivalent of someone dropping a cloth in the ocean to collect oil, then wringing it out and repeating the action again and again. Skimmers are not that effective overall and are virtually useless in 6 foot waves, but the oil industry has always touted skimmers as an effective clean-up tool, which I guess means that the ocean is always to remain calm and compliant when a spill occurs.

The industry is a goliath. In the end, the industry always wins what they need. More areas open to leasing. More opportunities to explore and develop, even if they lack the technology to address problems that may occur. More opportunities to do business by handcuffing and co-opting the very organizations that are intended to provide oversight. After what you have seen in the Gulf — do you really believe that the oil industry has the ability to manage a spill beneath the ice pack (what is left of it) off the shores of northern Alaska? But, you and I both know that drilling will continue, and may even do so without any major disasters for years, until….

In the end, I believe the moratorium will lead to little change, that drilling will continue with little oversight, and that the story of the Gulf will begin to abate a short month or two after the well is eventually (hopefully) capped in mid-August. We will have learned a little, but not a lot, and our desire to cause real change in regulation of the oil industry will begin to abate. Unfortunately, in the Gulf, as occurred in Alaska, problems caused by this spill will continue for years and likely decades.

I believe that the Obama administration's performance in response to this spill leaves much to be desired. The best thing that has been accomplished is to establish a claim fund. The fish likely are gone for a long time, but at least fisherman may receive some financial compensation for their tragic loss. From where I sit, Obama, Bush (Jr.), Clinton, Bush (Sr.) and Reagan all bowed to the industry's interests and none have required sufficient regulation and oversight.

Wayne Marshall

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