How the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Changed the Industry

On March 24, 1989, we saw one of the worst environmental disasters in the United States. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was so significant that it remained the worst American oil spill until the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April of 2010. The accident happened when the supertanker Exxon Valdez collided with the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Over 10.8 million gallons of oil spilled from the ship’s hull. The accident polluted about 1,200 miles of coastline with its oil.

The Damage of the Spill

Damage to the ecosystem from the Exxon Valdez spill was unprecedented. The spill killed about 250,000 seabirds, 1,000 sea otters, and 151 bald eagles. The killer whale population of Prince William Sound dropped from 36 to 22, and countless other fish died in the polluted waters. The damage wasn’t immediate—a 2003 study estimated that 20,000 gallons of oil soaked in the intertidal sands and caused significant damage to wildlife for years.

The Exxon Valdez accident also took its toll on the residents near Prince William Sound. As of 2009, the herring population in Prince William Sound had not recovered. Additionally, the area’s fishing economy experienced a significant decline. Thousands of Alaskan residents sued Exxon and were awarded a settlement after a 5-year lawsuit. ExxonMobil has claimed to have paid about $3.8 billion in settlements and fines to victims of the accident.

After all this damage, something had to be done to prevent grounding accidents like the one the Exxon Valdez experienced.

What Was Changed in the Oil Industry

After the disaster, the oil industry had much to answer for. First, the accident boosted the international push for double-hulling oil tankers. The Exxon Valdez was a single-hulled ship, and some find it likely that the accident was preventable had the vessel been double-hulled. Additionally, the spill increased the push for better GPS and warning systems on ships.

Legally, the Exxon Valdez disaster had a lasting impact on American law. In 1990, lawmakers passed the Oil Pollution Act with the goal of preventing a similar disaster in the future. This act increased oversight and increased safety requirements in the offshore industry. The 1990 law also created new research programs and mandated contingency planning. Some experts believe that this accident would have never occurred had these laws been in place before 1990.

Finally, the accident forced companies to look at how they took care of their workers. Since human error was the largest contributing factor the Exxon Valdez disaster, oil companies turned their focus to their people. Better training and more monitoring helped to create a more rested offshore workforce. Though the Exxon Valdez disaster propelled better policy for nearly 20 years, the Deepwater Horizon disaster dealt a serious blow to the reputation of the offshore drilling industry. The 2010 accident revealed that complacency still exists in the American drilling industry, and we must remain vigilant to keep workers and the environment safe from the next big disaster.

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