Remembering The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Why Oil Drilling Is Both Safer And Riskier Since Exxon Valdez

A lot has changed for the energy industry since the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in 1989 and began spilling oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. The outcry over images of oil-soaked wildlife and a once-pristine shoreline dirtied by crude ushered in greater scrutiny of oil operations and increased interest in research on how to clean up oil spills.

But while regulation may be tighter and spill response more robust today, companies are working in more challenging environments than they were 25 years ago. Fracking shale underground and drilling in remote places like the Arctic and below the ocean floor, experts say, also means a greater risk of accidents.

Just before the Exxon Valdez disaster, domestic support for oil spill research had waned. The federal government had shut down an outdoor testing lab on a naval base in Leonardo, N.J.

But the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 ordered the facility and its 667-foot-long saltwater pool re-opened. Today, Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy test facility, is busier than ever. The crew is working year-round — even importing ice to simulate Arctic conditions.

"We're at about 85 to 90 percent capacity at this moment," says Paul Meyer, program manager with federal contractor MAR, Inc. "We're running, almost every week, a different test and a different scenario."

A Sea Change For Safety Measures

The Exxon Valdez accident also fundamentally changed the oil giant now known as ExxonMobil. "This was a low point and a turning point in our company's history," says Richard D. Keil, senior media relations advisor.

The captain of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, had been drinking the day of the accident. Now, ExxonMobil requires drug and alcohol testing, and people with a history of substance abuse are not allowed in what the company calls "safety-sensitive positions."

Another change since 1989: Two tug boats are now required to navigate tankers through Prince William Sound.

"Simply put, safety is the first priority for our company. It has been ever since then and it continues to be that to this day," says Keil.

The historic spill also prompted regulatory changes and new laws, including the Oil Pollution Act that re-opened the New Jersey testing lab. Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, says the law has contributed to a decline in tanker and barge spills nationwide.

OPA '90, as industry insiders call the act, banned single-hull tankers from U.S. waters (the Exxon Valdez was such a ship). Tankers today have stronger double-hulls that can better withstand an accident.

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Internal Notes: 
Nancy Kinner
National Public Radio