BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank to the bottom in April. Additionally, BP’s cleanup and containment efforts in the Gulf have invited comparisons to the botched cleanup efforts in Alaska 20 years ago, which, as it turns out, weren’t managed by Exxon at all, but by BP.
When the Exxon Valdez deviated from its shipping course and hit a reef, the ship was working under an Alaskan oil industry consortium called Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. BP owned a controlling 50.01 percent share in the consortium while a half dozen other companies, including Exxon, held the rest.
As the majority member, BP had the responsibility to develop an oil-spill response plan and to put that plan in action in the event of an actual spill. But when more than 11 million gallons of crude poured into the Alaskan sound on March 24, 1989, BP showed it was incapable of orchestrating a swift and effective cleanup.
Years of cost cutting in areas that directly affected safety, poor planning, and a seemingly reckless disregard of federal regulations culminated in BP’s disastrously slow and bungled relief efforts in Alaska. In result, an oil spill that could have covered a few acres stretched for 1,100 miles, decimated wildlife, destroyed communities and careers, and sickened thousands of residents.
Will Parker, chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, which investigated the Exxon Valdez incident, told the Associated Press that Alyeska was “not prepared to respond at all. They did not have a trained team … The equipment was buried under several feet of snow,” he asserted.
BP also provided Alyeska with its executive leadership. Alaskan oil spill responses were coordinated from Houston. It took 7 hours for the first helicopter to launch and 12 hours for the first barge providing inadequate emergency equipment to arrive. Critical time was lost.
Dennis Kelso, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, told the AP that “Exxon quickly realized Alyeska was not responding, so 24 hours into the spill Exxon without consultation said, ‘We’re taking it over.’ That was not necessarily a bad thing.”
BP’s role in the Valdez spill has hardly been publicized, partly because “the state commission wanted to stay focused and avoid finger-pointing by saying who ran Alyeska in its report,” according to the AP. It was a legal approach that the commission and its attorneys deeply regret.
“In retrospect, it could’ve focused attention on BP and created transparency which would’ve changed the internal culture,” Zygmunt Plater, an attorney for the Alaska Oil Spill Commission said. “As we see the internal culture appears not to have changed with tragic results.”