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The day oil company promises proved empty

Even before Exxon Valdez, there were warning signs about oil spill clean-up plans and claims

July 19, 1987

"A promise made is a debt unpaid," Robert Service said.

But Robert Service didn't work for an oil company.

You couldn't help thinking about that last week as about 125,000 gallons of spilled oil washed up and down on the Cook Inlet tide. You couldn't help but wonder about those Warm Fuzzy television commercials with fishing boats cruising productively around oil platforms. You couldn't help thinking the promises had all been a lot of bunk.

There is some serious irony here, as well. The champagne with which oil executives toasted the 10th anniversary of their trans-Alaska pipeline triumph was still fizzing when the tanker Glacier Bay began to leak.

At about the time top oil officials were entertaining Alaska's ruling elite at a congratulatory party, the tanker was steaming away from Valdez terminal en route to disaster. While television viewers watched caribou graze in the shadow of a North Slope rig, reality was sloshing out of a ripped tanker hull at Nikiski.

Maybe an oil lobbyist was telling a congressman not to worry about environmental damage on the Arctic National Wildlife Range at the very moment North Slope crude was gushing out into Cook Inlet. In Washington, they're laying promises on top of promises. In Cook Inlet, they're spilling crude on the salmon.

For more than a decade, the oil industry has told Alaskans it wouldn't spill oil in our waters. If by chance or by accident it did, a massive, high technology response was guaranteed.

It didn't happen anything like that. Not even close.

Nobody thinks Standard Oil's chartered tanker hit a rock and spilled oil on purpose. While there will inquiry and perhaps blame for the seamanship that failed, the most important public policy question involves the response.

We'd been told that stateoftheart equipment was poised to skim oil from the surface. But the equipment wasn't here. When it got here, it couldn't corral the crude.

We were told that outfits like the Cook Inlet Response Organization a kind of oil spill SWAT team would swing instantly into action. But with almost all the spilled oil still awash in Cook Inlet, CIRO withdrew.

Perhaps there were bureaucratic reasons. Who's a member of the organization? Who isn't?

But somewhere it seems some oil company exec would have said, "Damn the details. Clean it up."

There's more at stake than a generation of oil company promises. After all, this is the same oil industry that wants to drill Bristol Bay, home of the world's richest salmon fishery. It seems like some oil man, thinking about those estimated 279 million barrels, would have figured that now was a bad time to dump crude oil on a salmon run.

And even without Bristol Bay, you'd think the ANWR battle itself would have motivated a quick, vigorous cleanup. It doesn't matter that this was a chartered tanker, or that these were Cook Inlet waters, or that the ANWR exploration calls for onshore activity. The fact is that right in the middle of the ANWR debate, somebody was spilling North Slope crude in cold water, with disastrous results.

Ten years ago the Alaska Legislature was fighting about whether to repurchase oil leases in Kachemak Bay. Right in the middle of their debate, the oil rig George Ferris started to snap, crackle and pop out in the bay, and lawmakers quickly decided to get it out of there for good.

"Who was George Ferris, anyhow?" a legislator later asked an oil lobbyist.

"I think," the lobbyist replied, "that he was the guy who designed the Edsel."

The same may one day be said of whoever handled the oil industry response in Cook Inlet.

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