Back to the Future: Exxon Valdez/Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill – Some Things Don’t Change (Even Dumb Comments)
Over 20 years ago in response to worries about the effect the Exxon Valdez oil spill would have on tourism, the Alaska tourism industry placed an ad comparing the oil spill to Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark. Last week Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, stated that the spill in the Gulf of Mexico is “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean” (click here for the related story).
Needless to say both tactics were met by outrage and ridicule – just another example of how time, technology and experience doesn’t change outcomes when dealing with major oil spills.
Twenty years ago I spent two seasons as a Coast Guard officer working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In the years since that big one we have developed thousands of pages of procedures for what is now called a “spill of national significance.” We created and trained additional responders and improved our oil spill clean-up technology. Congress increased the liability for responsible parties. As we watch the environmental drama unfold in the Gulf of Mexico we can see that despite all the improvements, large oil spills don’t cooperate with our best intentions or plans.
The story lines are reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez spill: BP said a spill like this was highly unlikely, residents and environmentalists are claiming they are being lied to, responders are being criticized for not responding fast enough, politicians are exploiting this for all its worth and everybody will be looking to make a buck. Yes, BP and the federal government will spend tons of money on trying to contain and clean up the spill.
In the end when you look at the cost versus the amount of oil actually cleaned up and the environmental damage, we will find that despite 21st century technology and lessons learned over the past twenty years the oil will have won this battle. Yes, we can put people into space and communicate instantly to anyone around the world by tapping a few keys on our cell phones, but the bottom line is that when it comes to oil spills - waves, weather and geology will usually win.
It’s all the more reason companies should have a workable PR/Crisis Management Plan in place to help handle critical communications and timely information delivery when things like this happen.