Following the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico last week, I was asked to appear on The Alyona Show on Russia Television to discuss whether we've really "learned anything" since the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf last spring. [To view the interview, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXfE5atXBMU.] But that question is loaded because we all know that the real issue is not whether we have learned anything, but rather how we will approach similar situations in the future. The recent explosion was a great way to dive back into the problems with offshore oil exploration and production.
So far, it appears that all of the parties responsible for the explosion--from the owner of the rig to the U.S. Coast Guard to the local authorities--acted immediately to find out exactly what had gone wrong. Secondly, the White House quickly got in front of the story. From a public relations standpoint, everyone looked their best. And yet what have we really learned? To answer this question, we need to look back--not at the BP oil spill last spring, but at the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as a prime example of how "learning from" and "fixing" an oil disaster don't always match up.
The Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill, in which an estimated 25 to 32 million gallons of oil was dumped into Prince William Sound as the tanker left Valdez, Alaska for Long Beach, California, is well documented, and its effects on the environment are still being felt today. Ostensibly, that disaster might not have taken place had the tanker's captain not passed out in his bunk after a bender, leaving the third mate at the helm. However, there were a multitude of other problems which led to this disaster, including a faulty sonar system and the fact that the Exxon Valdez was a single hulled tanker.
As a result of that disaster, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which addressed many of the problems that led to the Exxon Valdez spill. The OPA noted that an estimated 60 percent of the oil would not have been spilled if the vessel had been double hulled. In other words, more than half the oil would have remained on the ship if construction standards had been different. Subsequently, the OPA mandated a phase-in for all oil tankers to be double hulled--unfortunately, however, the phase-in isn't due to be completed until 2015, which is 26 years after the disaster.
So, what have we learned in the five months since the BP oil in the Gulf of Mexico and in the 21 years since Exxon Valdez? If history is any indication, it will most likely be at least a quarter of a century before any real progress will be made on completely repairing the problems that led to this latest oil disaster in the Gulf.
Jonathan A. Schein is CEO/ScheinMedia, publisher of MetroGreenBusiness.com.