When Alaskan oil starts flowing, Canada will get its share-every time there’s a spill

Walter Stewart March 21 1977

When Alaskan oil starts flowing, Canada will get its share-every time there’s a spill

Walter Stewart March 21 1977

When Alaskan oil starts flowing, Canada will get its share-every time there’s a spill

Walter Stewart

Soon now, oil from Alaska will begin to move by tanker down Canada’s west coast, enormously increasing the probabilities of a disastrous oil spill. The oil will move despite the fact that there has, as yet, been no satisfactory answer to two crucial questions: what the hell are the Americans going to do with the stuff when they get it, and what will happen when a calamitous spill occurs? The questions are not related except that both show how unplanned, how uncontrolled, has been the U.S. approach to both ecological and energy issues, issues that vitally affect our future as well as theirs.

The oil is scheduled to flow at the rate of 600,000 barrels a day in July, doubling in 1978. By that time, about half the flow will be surplus, that is, there will be 219 million barrels of oil per annum sloshing around that nobody quite knows what to do with. When the United States was clamoring to push through the Alaskan development, the word was that they had to have the oil for national security, to fight off the wicked Arabs. Now the stuff is a drug on the market. The Americans still need oil, of course, but not on the west coast. It would therefore be better for the oil companies, and more profitable, to sell off much of the Alaskan surplus to Japan, and Exxon, one of the major partners in Alaska, has a plan to do just that. (The advantage for Canada is that this material, presumably, would pose little threat to our shores: all we have to worry about is the danger of tankers bumping into each other and keeling over, as they have a regrettable habit of doing, on the life-giving ocean itself. The disadvantage, for Americans, is that some may think the oil companies, in citing national security to push the Alaskan scheme, were only funning; but they must be used to that.)

Sohio, another partner, has proposed to ship oil to Long Beach, California, for pipeline transport to Midland, Texas, and Atlantic Richfield has built a plant especially designed to handle Alaskan crude at Cherry Point, Washington, just south of Vancouver, in the treacherous waters of Puget Sound. These last two operations, if they survive the agonized assault of ecologists in both Canada and the United States, promise the near certainty of oil spills off our west coast. The U.S. Department of the Interior, in an environmental impact study of the Sohio plan, has calculated that it will bring six accidents per year, neatly summarized to include 0.3 collisions, rammings and groundings per annum, 3.3 structural failures, and 2.4 fires, explosions and breakdowns. “However,’" the report says, “the occurrence of a major spill would be rare.” It will be nice to know, when our beaches are fouled, our wildlife threatened, local ecology destroyed, that the thing is rare, and not regular. (It doesn’t look that way; in the first nine months of 1976, there were 604 tanker incidents worldwide, dumping a record 198,277 tons of oil into the water.)

What will happen when the oil starts washing ashore, nobody knows, but past experience suggests a scenario. The U.S. Coast Guard, which is supposed to police the tankers, will report that what happened ought not to have happened, and retire from the field. The U.S. government will promise to get tough with the oil companies some time in the future—before the oceans are irretrievably fouled it is hoped—and be heard from no more. The oil companies will point out that tankers are really the best way to carry oil, and they will slough off their responsibility onto the Coast Guard, the government, the weather, and navigational equipment, all of which, they will hint, are due for an imminent overhaul. Perhaps they will reissue a couple of the booklets they distribute claiming that supertankers are safe, and arguing that putting double bottoms on tankers won’t help. Trust us, they will say. Then everyone will subside until the next spill, when the process will be repeated.

At least the Alaskan oil will move mainly in U.S. tankers (the Jones Act requires the use of American bottoms for goods going from one American port to another) near our shores. That will limit the problems linked to “flag of convenience” vessels that avoid U.S. taxes, wages, training, safety regulations and responsibility. When the Liberian-registered Argo Merchant hit a rock off Nantucket last December and dropped most of its 7.6 million-gallon cargo (the oil slick extended 180 miles), her unidentified owners offered to assume liability up to the worth of the vessel after the accident, namely, nothing.

The American Petroleum Institute, a lobby mounted by major oil companies, frowns on this attitude. Ken Leonard, API transportation officer, told me in Washington, “We are very much in favor of stiffer controls and provision for liability . . . There was simply no excuse for the Argo Merchant.” (An API public relations man tried to wipe out this last phrase.) I suggested, “the problem is that people see the oil industry as not giving a damn about anything but profit. If you are suddenly in favor of regulation, how do we know it isn’t just a public relations gesture?” Leonard replied that there have been some problems, and “we certainly have some skeletons in our closet,” but he said that, despite opposition from a few members, the institute is “genuinely committed” to reform.

That is worthy of note, but if Canada really wants protection we will have to impose our own standards on tankers near our shores, make them tough and make them stick. The Americans will not like this. Leonard said it would constitute “unilateral action” by Canada. So it would. So did our establishment of a 200-mile “economic zone” offshore; so did our declaration of sovereignty in the Arctic. When trucks cross our borders they must conform to Canadian regulations; why should we exempt oil tankers, these floating disaster areas, from any meaningful restraint?

Leonard didn’t answer that question directly. He said it was not the same thing, really, because there was a tradition of noninterference on the sea, and he repeated that the API was working to improve tanker safety through multinational negotiation. He counseled patience.

Patience is a virtue, but if we keep ours until we are knee-deep in muck and slime we will have much to answer for to future generations.