Photo: Offshore drilling industry's dirty little secret: they can't clean it up

Oil spills like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater spill in the Gulf of Mexico simply can't be cleaned up (Credit: Kris krüg via Flickr).

By Pierre Sadik

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson recently told Congress, "the point is we have to take every step to prevent these things from happening, because when they happen we are not well equipped to prevent any and all damage. There is no response capability that will ensure that you won't have an impact."

Beleaguered BP CEO Tony Hayward is running a series of television ads in the Gulf region that end with the promise, as he looks the viewer in the eye, "we will make this right". Leaving aside for the moment the fact that hundreds of thousands of animals are already dead or are slowly dying in the Gulf, Mr. Hayward's promise is just plain impossible for him to keep.

Which is probably why you will not hear the considerably more savvy President of the United States make the same promise to viewers. President Obama has, undoubtedly, been advised that the Gulf region cannot be "made right" on the heels of such a massive oil spill.

The offshore drilling industry's dirty little secret is that oil spills can never actually be cleaned up. The oil — and the death and damage that accompanies it — lingers on not just for years but for decades.

In 1989 the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska dumped 11 million gallons into the waters of Prince William Sound and fouled 1,200 miles of pristine shoreline. A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that almost two decades after the Exxon spill tens of thousands of gallons of oil remain just below the surface at Prince William Sound.

The study found that "In sediment protected from physical dispersion, weathering rates are also considerably reduced. As a result, oil buried in anoxic sediments may retain toxic components such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) on time scales of years to decades." Roughly translated this means that even after clean-up efforts, and after the cleansing effect of countless waves, tides and Arctic storms, extremely nasty petrochemicals such as PAH remain to contaminate wildlife twenty years after the fact. The NOAA study found that the persistence of spill residue can create a chronic source of low level contamination and pose a hazard for sea otters, ducks, and shorebirds.

Even a subsequent follow-up study, paid for by Exxon Mobil and published in the Environmental Science & Technology Journal, found that 29 per cent of shoreline sites tested at Prince William Sound still contain light to heavy oil residue almost two decades later.

In 2004 the Terra Nova rig off the coast of Newfoundland spilled 1,069 barrels of oil into the Atlantic Ocean. A federal government study prepared by the Canadian Wildlife Service states that the area impacted by oil, which was visible by satellite, "was estimated at 793 square kilometres".

In most instances when animals, including birds, are in the vicinity of a spill and come in contact with oil, either directly or indirectly through the food chain, they don't survive for very long. The above-noted federal study estimates that anywhere from 4,000 to 16,000 birds where subject to the effects of the oil spill.

The reason so many were killed by the Terra Nova spill is that Petro-Canada could not recover more than a trivial portion of the oil that had been dumped into the sea. In this instance, officials were unable to put containment barriers into place because of seas of up to six metres at the site. Another vessel tried to recover some of the oil in subsequent days but more high waves and strong winds made it difficult to deal with the spill.

At the end of the day, officials admitted that 95 per cent of the oil spilled by the Terra Nova rig was never recovered.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is nobody's patsy, put it thus to Congress two weeks ago, "the point is we have to take every step to prevent these things from happening, because when they happen we are not well equipped to prevent any and all damage. There is no response capability that will ensure that you won't have an impact."

Tillerson's unusually candid remarks about ineffective clean-up, coming on the heels of a growing public awareness that all offshore drilling inevitably involves repeated spills (each year there are dozens of spills in the Gulf and almost a dozen off of Newfoundland), points to the conclusion that offshore drilling has no place as part of a responsible energy policy.

In the final analysis, offshore drilling and the inevitable oil spills that accompany it are only tolerated because the heavy costs of drilling are borne by others — and not by the oil industry itself. Shareholders received a dividend during the Gulf spill and Tony Hayward still went yachting because the incalculable devastation to the people, animals and plants of the Gulf will be paid for by everyone and everything in the Gulf's enormous ecosystem well into the future — not by BP.

By the same token, Petro-Canada paid a paltry $290,000 fine for the substantial Terra Nova spill. The real cost in lost life, contaminated water, and polluted air (due to evaporation of petrochemicals) is exponentially greater than what Petro-Canada paid.

If the true cost of offshore drilling were "privatized" instead of foisted on the public, the prohibitive cost would immediately stop all offshore drilling, period.

This column first appeared in The Hill Times.

July 29, 2010

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