09/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Connect the Dots: See the Real Costs of Our Oil Dependency, More Oil is Not the Answer

Cordova, Alaska. The other night I biked over to the home of Linden and Kevin "Sam" O'Toole to watch the CNN Anderson Cooper 360º story on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They had spent the better part of a day with the television crew while I was out of town. We all wanted to see how our story--Cordova's story--came out in 3 minutes after hours of interviews.

We were disappointed--and not for the first time. Despite nearly 20 years of media coverage of this spill, mainstream reporters have consistently missed the heart of our discontent--and the important lessons this disaster carries for the rest of America. Once again the media only captured the easy story.

Yes, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound 19 years ago and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Yes, the oil devastated wildlife and contaminated thousands of miles of pristine, wild coastline--3,200 miles, according to federal scientists.

CNN reported that 1,200 miles were contaminated--using Exxon's number, just like the 11 million gallons CNN said were spilled is Exxon's self-reported low-end estimate. Records from an investigation, released to the public five years after the spill, show that the state of Alaska pegged the volume spilled at closer to the high-end estimate of 38 million gallons. Think about it: 8 of 11 cargo holds were ripped wide open on impact with the reef. Do you really think only one-fifth of the cargo spilled? Three times as much coastline and three times as much oil--that's our story in Cordova and we're sticking with it, but it's an uphill battle to get the media to tell our story. There's more.


19 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, toxic oil still lies buried on Smith Island--and other islands--in Prince William Sound. Only 9 of 24 injured species and habitats have fully recovered, according to government scientists. Photo by Dave Janka, July 1, 2008.

Yes, CNN reported a jury of peers awarded some 22,000 plaintiffs five billion dollars in punitive damages in 1994 and this award was recently slashed by the U.S. Supreme Court to $507 million. In the short story, the O'Tooles tried to explain what this meant for Cordova fishermen: financial ruin.

All of the herring fishermen are out of business; about half of the salmon seine fishermen can't afford to fish. The O'Tooles figure they lost $50,000 a year for 19 years. Round that to 20 years because the herring fishery is closed indefinitely from the spill. That's a million in lost income. They expect their share of the punitive award--after attorneys' fees, taxes, and Exxon's sizeable cut--that's right, Exxon gets 11 percent of the award-- will be 5-10 percent of what they lost. Oh, and the O'Tooles narrowly avoided bankruptcy when they sold their once-prized salmon seine fishing permit for $47,000, realizing a $253,000 loss in equity. They've paid off that debt. Many others in town weren't so "lucky." There are cases of bankrupt fishermen who traded their share of the punitive award to pay off their fishing debts. It won't happen at $507 million.

But all this is really only the tip of the iceberg. CNN used a single sound byte of Sam saying, "We are the cost of Exxon doing business."

We talked about that after the show. I pointed out we are not the cost of Exxon doing business. Exxon wrote off the cleanup as a business expense, the same as ExxonMobil is now writing off the cost of fighting us in court. We are what accountants call, an "externality," an expense that can be foisted onto the environment, the public, and taxpayers, while the company pockets profits--such as the record $11.7 billion recently reported by ExxonMobil.

Sam looked thoughtful, then corrected his statement. "It cost me my business so Exxon could do its business." The CNN reporters, of course, were long gone.

But the biggest problem with the CNN story--just like all the other media stories--is that the reporters failed to connect the dots of the legacy of this oil spill with cost of fuel at the pumps and the supposed drill mania sweeping America. CNN reported 7 in 10 Americans now support offshore oil drilling, according to the corporate-sponsored opinion polls. I don't believe those polls. Here's why.

I missed the CNN team because I was in Durango, Colorado, visiting my friend, Lisa Marie Jacobs, who was driven from Cordova, in part, by the high costs of home heating fuel and gas. In Cordova, high fuel costs are a triple whammy: sticker shock at the pump, higher costs of growing food (elsewhere), and transportation costs to get that food to Cordova. Lisa Marie is a single mother, raising her own daughter, an adopted child, and a foster kid as well. Her heart is much bigger than her pocketbook.

But Lisa Marie is not a drilling advocate. She sees her move as a short-term fix to some of her own problems. She knows more oil is not the long-term answer. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Lisa Marie worked with traumatized children and adults, not just in 1989, but for nearly two decades. She was the founding president of the Cordova Family Resource Center. She saw the human cost of that spill, not in the clinical terms of 99 percent increase in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and 90 percent increase in General Anxiety Disorder, but in real terms of depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, divorce--her own included, fearful and confused children, and even suicides.

However, these things never counted in court. They were dismissed as "non-economic damages," an externality borne only by the spill victims--an entire community in our case. As long as we drill, there will be more spills, more traumatized victims, more social trauma, and more chaotic communities.

Even worse, we will find ourselves without a place to live. Instead of treating global climate change like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, the media needs to connect the dots. Science has advanced in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill: oil is more toxic to life on earth and Earth itself than previously thought 30 years ago when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts passed--and before burning of fossil fuels was linked with an unstable climate.

Lisa Marie knows this and so do the O'Tooles. Our debriefing session lasted longer than the CNN story. Linden and Sam had tried to explain the bigger picture. Sam recalled saying, "The cost of Exxon's business is communities and small countries." He was referring to the externalities. Linden tried to explain the Supreme Court decision affects all Americans, all communities, because it is a green light for large corporations to take broad leeway with public health, the environment, and even the planet: we have all become externalities that can be written off as a cost of doing business. The CNN team didn't connect the dots.

I count the alleged drilling mania as driven by the media that are paid by big business. It's time for the politicians and media to connect the dots and see the real story. An oil future is a suicide future full of kids with asthma and premature deaths from breathing fine oil particles in urban exhaust, full of political and social instability, full of high costs for a dwindling resource.

Forget the polls. Pick up the telephone and shout NO! to our politicians, no more drilling. A green future is a living future. And while you're at it, tell your congress people to overturn the Exxon Valdez decision. It's a first step towards taking back America from the mega-corporations.

Riki Ott, PhD, is an expert on the effect of oil spills on people, communities, and the environment, and a former fisherwoman. Her forthcoming book, Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal & Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez (Chelsea Green, 2008), is her personal account of the social, economic, and legal fallout from this spill, ramifications for America, and what we can do to avert disaster.