Oil Spills and Their Affects on Our Beaches

It is a well documented fact that oil spills can create lasting damage to the oceans, sometimes leading to irrecoverable losses to marine ecosystems and inhabiting species. In the Exxon Valdez spill that took place two decades back, 258,000 barrels of oil were spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Although only a fifth of the total supertanker got spilled, its impact was devastating. In light of this and similar events, governments across the world have created legislations and regulations to mitigate risk. One such crucial legislation in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster was the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA ’90), which imposed unlimited liability on proprietors and operators of ships and shore facilities who discharge oil into surrounding waters. This Act met with much criticism, especially from energy company lobbyists, for it contained strict rules and regulations that had the potential to alter international oil trade. For example, the cost of compliance with OPA ’90 was said to be “$1.3 billion over the next 24 years, but some say the figure will be closer to $7 million by 2015.” (Oshins, 1992, p.54) This is an important statistic in the context of this essay, for it indicates the real reason behind continued instances of oil spills – namely, cost of compliance. Although the OPA ’90 was supposed to deter sub-standard safety measures, it has not fulfilled that end. This is in part due to the perceived excesses in some of its clauses. There is validity to those claims which portray OPA ’90 in negative light, attacking it for the severity of punitive measures it encompasses. For example, under the OPA ’90, “in addition to removal costs, the responsible party becomes liable for consequential damages: harm to natural resources, economic loss to real or personal property, losses suffered by one who earns subsistence from natural resources, losses in tax revenues, loss to profit or earning capacity, and increased expense of public services.” (Oshins, 1992, p.54)

Hence, a major drawback of the legislation is its underlying assumption that exorbitant financial compensation after the event will somewhat prompt oil companies to tighten up their transportation procedures. But this assumption has proven weak. For example, although there are some efforts by major oil companies toward making their oceanic oil transport as risk-free as possible, the frequency of spills has not reduced. The recent British Petroleum disaster is another example of the systemic failure of oil industry and government agencies. The recent BP disaster is as much a result of human failures as it is due to technical shortcomings and inadequate planning. Even as investigations were started and all pretense of earnestness were shown by politicians, the most important reason has been ignored – namely, that deep sea drilling is inherently risky and continued use of fossil fuels are already affecting marine ecosystems through climate change. Another factor that amplifies risk of oil-spill is the generation of hydrate gas. Under a depth of 1000 feet or more beneath the sea-level hydrate gases such as methane are found in a solid state, compressed into “molecular cages of ice”. (Allen, 2010, p.12) But if they happen to get destabilized due to a reduction in pressure or rise in temperature, the “gas-water compound can quickly expand 164 times in volume. If ignited, even ice-bound hydrates burn. This could potentially block the [blowout preventer] stack, kill lines and chokes, obstruct the movement of the drill string, and cause serious operational and safety concerns including blowouts” (Allen, 2010, p.12)

In the last thirty years, 165 blowouts were witnessed in U.S. marine zones and 500 worldwide. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is the chief government agency looking into the problem, has not taken adequate steps to mitigate this risk. Even in the BP case, the MMS was suspected of colluding with the business corporation:

“If BP cut the corners, MMS handed it a chainsaw. Capping a long- corrupted relationship with the oil and gas industry it is supposed to regulate, MMS signed off on continuing the well-capping operation after BP managed to produce successful results by dropping the pressure at which it was testing the blowout preventer from the usual 10,000 pounds per square to 6,500. Despite BPs rank by Public Citizen as having “the worst safety and environmental record of any oil company operating in America” (in a field rife with accident-prone corporations), MMS trusted the company to do the right thing.” (Allen, 2010, p.12)

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