Gulf oil spill evoked sense of deja vu for Alaskan on presidential commission


ANCHORAGE, Alaska – President Obama in June tapped University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Fran Ulmer for the presidential commission investigating the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, and as crude oil continued to spew from the Macondo well 40 miles from shore in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska’s former lieutenant governor found herself in a helicopter sizing up the spill.

She spoke to worried local officials, watched responders pick up oiled pelicans, and remembered 1989, when she witnessed millions of gallons of crude oil spew from a tanker gashed on a rock in Prince William Sound.

“You hope that you don’t repeat the same errors over time as a human society,” she says. “And so, yes, it was a real sense of deja vu, and a sense of, ‘Gee, I thought we learned something after the Exxon Valdez.”

In the next breath, she remembers what did happen after Alaska’s tragedy: a federal law that has phased in double hull tankers; a requirement for tanker escorts into Port Valdez; creation of regional citizen councils that act as industry watchdogs; storage facilities in Alaska fishing communities where spill response gear is cached. But the lessons didn’t translate to the Gulf of Mexico, which was far more prepared for hurricanes than oil spills.

“I was surprised at how little preparation there was on the ground, apparently, in the Gulf of Mexico, given the amount of oil and gas drilling that exists in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.

The explosion and fire killed 11 men. The commission report, released Jan. 11, faults both industry and the government regulators for failing to prevent the blowout and then failing to contain it.

The industry’s safety programs have not kept pace with the astonishing technological advances that allow drilling 10,000 feet below the water and then thousands of feet into the ocean floor, Ulmer said. It’s like going to the moon, but workers die in the Gulf of Mexico at four times the rate of workers in the North Sea, she said.

“What needed to happen in sort of a parallel course is the development of more sophisticated risk management techniques that would allow the people both on the rigs, and the people back in Houston at central headquarters, to be able to not only monitor what is going on on the rigs affecting safety, but also integrate that to a decision regime,” Ulmer said.

On any given rig, dozens of specialists from a variety of business cultures work together in a high-risk, complicated environment. On the Deepwater Horizon, the safety regime failed.

“It was shocking to us, the very elementary – not sophisticated, very elementary – degrees in which on this rig, those mechanisms – some of them were there but they weren’t being done in a way that was commensurate with the amount of the risk,” she said.

Previous successes led to a false sense of security.

“Both government and industry had been in a mindset that it’s all safe a nd we don’t really have to worry about it, and don’t hold our feet to the fire because there hasn’t been a really big spill in years.”

The number of deep water offshore wells expanded but the federal Minerals Management Service budget remained flat.

“They were being deprived of the resources they needed to effectively regulate,” she said. “And, I might note, when they tried to increase regulatory standards, the industry and Congress pushed back and said, ‘No, don’t worry, this is unnecessarily burdensome. We don’t like regulations. We’re in an era of deregulation. Get off the industry’s back.'” Ulmer said. “That in the long run is not good for either industry or the nation.”

The Obama administration responded by restructuring and renaming the MMS, splitting its energy development and safety mission. The commission recommended oil producers imitate the nuclear power industry and fund a safety institute to define best practices and police themselves, in part to ensur e that companies with strong safety standards are not compromised by companies with weak records.

The commission also recommended that a “safety case” approach be taken for deep-water wells and high risk areas such as the Arctic. Used in the North Sea, the approach requires oil companies to develop a drilling plan based on the physical conditions of a specific well, plus a specific containment and spill response plan. Those too were lacking in the Gulf of Mexico, where the industry was taken at its word that the chance of a spill was minute.

“Not only could they not contain it, none of the other big companies doing business in the Gulf of Mexico were prepared to come in and help them contain it,” Ulmer said. “It took months before they figured out. They basically on the fly figured out a new containment system.”

Ulmer was struck by how little the cleanup tools – boom, skimming, burning, dispersants – had changed since the Exxon Valdez.

“The sophistication in the cleanup of oil was very, very small, very marginal improvements. Unfortunately, neither the industry nor government have really invested the dollars needed to advance those technologies,” she said.

The commission chose not to comment on specific proposals for what may be the next offshore battle ground, the Arctic Ocean waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska’s northwest and north coast. Shell Oil in 2008 spent $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi at an MMS sale and pressure to drill there is increasing as onshore Alaska wells diminish and offshore drilling in other states has been declared out of bounds. America continues to consume 18.7 million barrels of oil per day, the report noted.

Ulmer quickly ticks off Arctic Ocean natural hazards: extreme cold, extended seasons of darkness, hurricane-strength storms, pervasive fog. The nearest Coast Guard base is more than 1,000 miles away and its leaders acknowledge a lack of basic information available in the gulf, such as navigation hazards and currents.

The Arctic is rich in marine mammals such as endangered whales, polar bears, walrus and ice seals and the U.S. Geological Survey is assessing an acknowledged gap in habitat studies for making policy decisions.

Ulmer said commissioners did not want to substitute their judgment for regulators considering drilling permits or science gaps. But speaking in general of offshore drilling, Ulmer said it will continue.

“That’s where the oil is and so that’s where we’re going to be drilling. So we better do a better job of prevention, containment and oil spill cleanup in the future.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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