Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of one of this countrys great ecological disasters. The Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef in Alaskas Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, damaging 1,300 miles of shoreline, disrupting the livelihoods of thousands of Americans and fouling one of the countrys richest fishing grounds.
More than $2 billion has been spent on cleanup and recovery. Exxon has paid at least $1 billion in damages. Supertankers have been made safer with double hulls, emergency teams given better equipment. Some fish species, though not all, have recovered.
Yet the Exxon Valdez still sends a powerful cautionary message: oil development, however necessary, is an inherently risky, dirty business especially so in the forbidding waters of the Arctic.
The White House should keep that in mind as it maps out its energy strategy. While rightly emphasizing conservation, efficiency and renewable energy, President Obama has said that oil and gas drilling in Americas coastal waters will be part of the mix. The challenge is to do it right, and do it carefully.
Mr. Obamas interior secretary, Ken Salazar, has said he wont be rushed into offshore drilling a refreshing contrast to the drill baby drill mania of the 2008 G.O.P. campaign. He has already pulled back a Bush administration plan opening up huge swaths of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to drilling. He promises a more measured proposal by the end of the year.
Mr. Salazar must also make decisions about the waters of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, which hold the bulk of Americas untapped reserves and have always been open to drilling. Drilling in the gulf has caused relatively few environmental problems and is widely accepted. Drilling in Alaskan waters is another issue altogether. The unforgiving Arctic environment is far riskier; icy, turbulent waters would make oil spills hard to contain. And the ecological damage could be staggering; Alaskas waters contain some of the richest fisheries and most varied wildlife on earth.
One fairly easy call for Mr. Salazar would be to restore protections for Alaskas Bristol Bay. President George H. W. Bush declared the bay off-limits to drilling after the Exxon Valdez disaster a move reversed by his son George W. Bush in 2007.
Bristol Bay contributes heavily to the areas $2.2 billion annual fish catch about 40 percent, in dollar terms, of all the seafood caught in Americas coastal waters. Oil and gas development, according to Interiors Minerals Management Service, would yield total revenues of less than $8 billion over 20 to 40 years.
The Bush administration had even more ambitious plans for other waters in the Arctic opening 40 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and 33 million acres in the Beaufort Sea for possible development. It sold one lease, now under court challenge, covering 2.3 million acres in 2008. Unless the Obama administration changes course, other leases within these areas are sure to be offered.
These plans, too, cry out for reconsideration. Mr. Salazar has spoken of harnessing energy from the tides and winds. Given the fragility of the environment, the countrys long-term energy needs and the threat of another Exxon Valdez disaster, these avenues would seem to offer safer passage than punching holes in the Arctic.