Lessons of oil spills past not learned

Boatmen toss hay onto the oil-soaked waters. The hay absorbs the oil and then volunteers scoop up hay clumps and bring them ashore.

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Tess Vigeland: Residents and cleanup crews along the Gulf Coast are watching closely as Tropical Storm Alex churns it way toward shore. More than 40 years ago, all eyes were on a different spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. It was 1969 and an oil platform blew, spewing three million gallons of crude into the Pacific.

As Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, some of the lessons learned in the intervening years didn't stick.


Sarah Gardner: On the morning of Jan. 28, 1969, James Bottoms got a phone call from a friend who worked for the local newspaper. An oil rig had just exploded off the Santa Barbara coast. Bottoms had been fishing, diving and sailing in these waters for years. The first day, he says, he could spot only specks of oil coming in.

James Bottoms: And then it came ashore in great gobs. Now, I remember going down to one of my favorite swimming beaches and just standing there just crying. Our whole life was changed completely.

The Santa Barbara spill was small compared to the disaster in the Gulf today. But the images of dead sea lions and suffocating dolphins shocked the American public. Thousands of volunteers pitched in to clean up 35 miles of tarred coastline. They soaked up the oil with hay.

Bottoms: They'd spread hay all over the harbor and out in the water and pick up the black straw with pitchforks, load it into trucks and haul it out of here.

Bottoms helped start a grassroots movement that eventually led to a drilling moratorium off most of the country's coastal waters. The president of Union Oil, the well's owner, did his part to galvanize environmentalists. Here's his most famous quote after the spill -- reenacted.

Actor, as Union Oil President Fred Hartley: I don't like to call it a disaster, because there's been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.

Reminiscent of Tony Hayward's "I want my life back"? But the Santa Barbara oil spill also taught a lesson. Federal officials had allowed Union Oil to skimp on the well's protective casings. After the spill, the Feds demanded more safety devices and for the first time, ordered they be tested. The industry snapped to attention.

Byron King is an energy analyst at Agora Financial. He says within months offshore drillers held their first convention.

Byron King: The people of the offshore development industry got together in a relatively small hotel ballroom in Houston, because it was not a very large industry back then. And they got together and said, "Man, something really bad happened out there, we have to figure this out and we have to do a better job as an industry."

Safety did improve. So did the technology. King says those annual get-togethers spawned a spirit of "cooperative competition," and the industry took off.

Newscast: In the Gulf of Mexico, rain and heavy seas are hampering efforts to cap a Mexican oil well.

1979: 10 years after Santa Barbara. The so-called Ixtoc well suffered a blowout. The blowout preventer failed to stop a leak far bigger than the one in Santa Barbara. It took the Mexican oil giant Pemex almost 10 months to plug the well.

Newscast: Mexican officials are calling it "Operation Sombrero." Workers have been trying since the weekend to put a 300-ton steel cone over the mouth of the runaway well.

Sound familiar? That method failed to contain the spill, just like it did for BP last month.

Rick Steiner is a marine biologist who's studied the effects of oil spills. He says Ixtoc should have been a huge wake-up call for regulators and industry.

Rick Steiner: And it really wasn't. They sort of dismissed it as a real threat in the U.S. And the U.S. offshore drillers were quite pompous and arrogant about their technological prowess, saying that this could never happen in the United States.

In fact, the same year Ixtoc exploded, Shell Oil set a record, drilling in over a thousand feet of water in the Gulf. By 2003, ChevronTexaco was drilling 10,000 feet down in ultradeep water.

Tad Patzek is a top petroleum engineer and professor at the University of Texas.

Tad Patzek: So this is an extremely difficult, harsh environment, and the technology that works in this environment can only be compared in its complexity to technology that we use in space.

But as drilling technology evolved, planning for worst-case scenarios lagged. Regulators knew the risks of deepwater drilling and about finicky "blowout preventers." But over the years, regulators and the companies they policed had developed a cozy relationship. At its worst, it led to scandals involving drug use, sex and illegal gifts.

But it wasn't just lax regulation at fault. For years, offshore drillers had managed to avoid catastrophic deepwater spills; success led to complacency. Even the president was convinced the risks were minimal.

President Obama: It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.

That was 18 days before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. The industry's successes also dispelled any sense of urgency over funding better containment and clean-up technology.

Ira Leifer is a a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has struggled to get oil companies to fund his research into better containment booms, partly, he believes, because they see no profit in it.

Ira Leifer: The end result of this attitude is we don't learn, as a society, as a nation, from these horrible events that we've all seen now occurring on the TV in front of us. We are not ready for them with the latest science and technology.

Biologist Rick Steiner says past spills point to the need for strong federal oversight and stepped up research. But if those are the only lessons we've learned, he'll be disappointed.

Steiner: I've seen these offshore fields all over the world and I'm starting to worry that no matter how safe we make them, there is still a marginal risk of a catastrophe, like the Deepwater Horizon. Therefore, don't we have better alternatives than that?

At the moment, well, no. Petroleum engineers point out we're drilling in risky waters, because onshore oil production is declining around the world -- but our thirst for petroleum isn't. By the end of this decade, up to 40 percent of our oil could be produced offshore. It's up to us to decide, everytime we fill up our tanks, whether deepwater drilling is worth it.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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