An Analysis of the Factors Surrounding the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Disaster

Categories: Oil Spill


The purpose of this paper is to examine the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. Specifically, this paper will first consider the facts of the oil spill. What happened? What caused the oil spill? Who was responsible? Could it have been prevented? What were the effects of the oil spill on the environment? Second, this paper will examine changes implemented to prevent a future oil spill. Particular attention will be paid to laws enacted since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Third, these changes will be evaluated.

In other words, are these changes sufficient to prevent another disaster? This paper will conclude that the oil industry is not safe, and that there could be an accident at any time.

In many ways this story begins in 1968 with the discovery of oil on Alaska's North Shore. Alaska's North Slope is one of the coldest and most inaccessible places in the world. Many people wondered how they could drill the oil from the North Slope.

Also, once the oil was drilled how, would they transport the oil to the rest of the United States? In 1973, the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline was approved. It is an 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in Prince William Sound. Environmentalists were concerned about how everything related to the drilling and transporting of the oil would affect the wildlife and environment of Alaska. They were particularly concerned with the potential for an oil spill as tankers carried oil through the incredibly abundant but treacherous Prince William Sound (Davidson, p.

Top Writers
Verified writer
4.8 (309)
Professor Harris
Verified writer
4.9 (457)
Sweet V
Verified writer
4.9 (984)
hire verified writer

xiv). Although the risk of an oil spill was recognized, the potential economic benefits were huge. The State of Alaska could make money by leasing land to the oil companies and taxing the oil companies. In fact, by the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, oil development produced 85% of Alaska state revenues; each Alaskan resident received an annual check for $800 from state oil revenues, and state income taxes had been abolished (Davidson, p.xiv). Furthermore, the country needed Alaska's oil. Two million barrels of oil a day would be pumped through the pipeline to Valdez, where it would be loaded onto tankers and shipped to the rest of the United States. Since 1977, when the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was finished, almost 9,000 tankers loaded oil at the Valdez pipeline terminal and headed south just as the Exxon Valdez was scheduled to do.

The Oil Spill

In order to evaluate the preventive measures implemented since the oil spill, and to assess whether a similar occurrence is possible today, it is necessary to first understand the details of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. At 9:26 p.m. on March 23, 1989 the Exxon Valdez pulled away from the Valdez pipeline terminal after being loaded with 53 million gallons of oil. This was the Exxon Valdez s twenty-eighth visit to the terminal since 1986. The Exxon Valdez's trip this time would be to travel south away from Alaska, along the western coasts of Canada and the United States and deliver the oil to Long Beach, California. The oil tanker, which cost around $125 million to build, was under the command of Captain Joseph Hazelwood, one of the best commanders Exxon had.

A pilot is needed to navigate through Port Valdez because it is so difficult to steer through. On March 23, the pilot, Ed Murphy, boarded the Exxon Valdez and began to navigate it through the Valdez Narrows. The Valdez Narrow connects Port Valdez with Prince William Sound. This is the most dangerous place on the tanker route. Hazelwood left the bridge, leaving the Third Mate, Cousins, in charge (Lebedoff, p.14). The pilot was able to take the tanker through Valdez Narrow with no problem. With the worst danger thought to be behind, the ship picked up speed. At about 11:35 the pilot left the tanker and control was returned to Captain Hazelwood (Carr, p.13). Captain Hazelwood contacted the Coast Guard and informed them that he would be changing course slightly to avoid icebergs. Ten minutes later, Hazelwood told the helmsman to again change course and to put the vessel on autopilot. Neither move was reported to the Coast Guard (Lebedoff, p.15). Hazelwood instructed Cousins, to steer the tanker back onto course after the tanker reached Busby Island. Robert Kagan then replaced the helmsman, only recently promoted to able seaman. The captain then left the bridge again, going below to his cabin. Then, Cousins too left the bridge and went to the chart room. Although they reached the turning point, no one gave the order to turn and the ship continued on course. When the lookout noticed that they were approaching Bligh Reef, Cousins gave the order to turn the tanker to the right. This turn would begin to take the tanker back onto course. They remained, however, on a collision course. Cousins now frantically ordered another turn. The tanker was not turning sharply enough. Third Mate Cousins then phoned Captain Hazelwood who was still in his cabin and told him he thought something was seriously wrong. Immediately after he spoke those words the crew aboard the Exxon Valdez felt the first impact with Bligh Reef. It was 12:04 a.m., Friday, March 24, 1989. Hazelwood ran to the bridge.

The tremendous force of the tanker hitting the reef ripped open the steel cargo holds. The Exxon Valdez was gushing oil at 200,000 gallons a minute (Lebedoff, p.17). The oil poured out so fast that a wave three feet high of oil was created. The sudden release of so much of the ship's cargo sent the ship off balance. If the captain were not careful, the ship could either rip in half or tip over. Captain Hazelwood did not radio the Coast Guard about what had happened for more than twenty minutes. When he did finally radio, he told them We ve fetched up hard aground … Evidently were leaking some oil and we re going to be here for a while. (Carr, p.17). He was trying to work the tanker free from the reef. At about 2:00 a.m., a crewman radioed the Coast Guard that the Captain had given up maneuvering the tanker and the engines were stopped.

Clean up efforts began. However, there were many factors that made this spill very complicated to clean up. The size of the spill and the remote location, accessible only by helicopter and boat, made efforts to clean up the spill very difficult. The existing plans to deal with oil spills had to be changed to deal with this spill. In all, more than 11 million gallons of crude oil had been spilled (Carr, p.18). The oil spill was the largest in United States history and tested the abilities of everyone involved to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. The fact that no one was prepared to deal with a spill of this magnitude contributed to its impact. The oil-spill response plan called for spill-fighting equipment to be on hand within five hours of the spill. But it was more than 10 hours before Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was able to get people onsite and involved in a cleanup (Carr, p.26). Even when they arrived, they were unprepared. By Friday morning, the oil had spread out for miles. During the first days after the spill, great weather settled over the sound. This weather hampered clean up efforts because the chemical dispersants that could have been used to break up the oil required rough seas. In the days following, the weather took a turn for the worse, but now the weather was too rough. Planes were unable to fly and spread the chemicals (Carr, p.28). So, the oil just kept on spreading with remarkable speed.

The Effects of the Oil Spill

Prince William Sound was one of the most beautiful and environmental sensitive regions in the world; a huge range of animals and plant life lived there, commercial fishing was the main source of income for the surrounding areas. On March 24 all of that changed when the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef. The resulting oil spill has been characterized as the most devastating and costly oil spill ever (Davidson, p.36). That spring, the oil moved along the coastline of Alaska, contaminating portions of the shoreline of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, lower Cook Inlet, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska Peninsula. Oiled areas include a National Forest, four National Wildlife Refuges, three National Parks, five State Parks, four State Critical Habitat Areas, and a State Game Sanctuary. It eventually spread to more than 1200 miles of coastline. The size of the spill covered the distance from Cape Cod to the outer banks of North Carolina (Lebedoff, p.20). Oil eventually reached shorelines nearly 600 miles southwest from Bligh Reef where the spill first occurred (Carr, p.34).

The oil spill had devastating effects on the wildlife in Prince William Sound. Every day the tides would wash up dead birds and sea otters. One island had 500 dead birds on a 4-mile stretch of shore. The oil had turned the birds into a stiff, black mass. This caused some of the birds to drown. Once the heavy oil got on their feathers they could not float. Other birds died of the cold because feathers contaminated with oil lose their shape and, thus, their ability to insulate. More birds were poisoned when they ate plants that had oil on them. More than 30,000 seabirds were found killed by the oil (Parrish & Boersma, p.112). That number is just the birds that were found. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 350,000 birds might have died (Davidson, p.38).

Even worse than the dead birds on the beaches were the murres and loons covered with oil but not yet dead. Many of them were completely black. They tried to fly but were unable to because they were too heavy with oil. Rescue workers captured as many as they could and brought them to birdcare centers. The count of dead murres was 36,360. In addition, otters suffered greatly from the oil. In the first few days of the spill, over 500 otters were killed (Carr, p.37). Many more otters probably sank at sea. Oil ruined the otters ability to stay warm. Matted with oil, their fur was no longer able to insulate them from the cold weather. Other otters died from poisoning from the oil. More than 116,000 dead otters were retrieved (Davidson, p.39).

This does not consider the non quantifiable losses, such as the heightened sense of vulnerability of the people living near the oil spill, or the lost wilderness value (Davidson, p.40). People suffered from depression and stress related effects (Davidson, p.40). Destitution, bankruptcy, drunkenness, and divorce have all been attributed to the oil spill (Lebedoff, p.300).

In upholding the judgment against Exxon, Judge Holland said that the Valdez oil spill was the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of people (Lebedoff, p. 306). Prince William Sound was at one time one of the most beautiful places in Alaska. Now Dan Pettit, a local fisherman, describes it as a dead sea out there (Postman, p. 5). Although Exxon spent close to $3 billion on the clean up, it is too soon to estimate the long term effects of the spill. Biologists estimate that some species may take between 20 and 70 years to recover from the spill (Davidson, p.55). There are fewer harbor seals, harlequin ducks, seals and sea otters. There are fewer common murres, loons, trout, clams, and rockfish.

The Causes

In order to determine how best to prevent future oil spills, it is necessary to examine the causes of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What factors contributed to the accident? The causes of the accident are obviously the subject of debate and are complex. At least three specific causes have been identified: 1) the captain had a well-known drinking problem; 2) crew fatigue and policy violations; and 3) Coast Guard negligence in vessel.

It has been argued that Captain Hazelwood s drinking was a contributing factor causing the accident. In Cleaning Up: The Story Behind the Biggest Legal Bonanza of our Time, Lebedoff continually refers to the case as the largest drunk driving case ever. Captain Hazelwood had a history of problems with alcohol; he had repeated convictions for drunk driving of his automobile; he had been in treatment for alcohol abuse. Yet, he was allowed to remain at sea and was captain of the Valdez. Exxon had evidence of Hazelwood s continuing abuse, but failed to monitor him adequately. Furthermore, Hazelwood was drinking on the day the Valdez set sail. Although there is some dispute, he had at least three drinks and they tested him at a blood alcohol level of .06 eleven hours after the crash. This was in clear violation of the law which forbid drinking within four hours of assuming sea duty. Furthermore, Captain Hazelwood left the bridge repeatedly when he shouldn't have, in violation of Exxon s rule that at least two officers must be on the bridge at all times (Lebedoff, p16).

Second, the crew was overworked and fatigued. Exxon s cost cutting moves had left the tanker undermanned. When the ship was first launched in 1986, it had a crew of 34; when it ran aground in 1989, it was operating with a crew of 20 (Lebedoff, p16). The fatigue of the crew affected the operation of the vessel. For example, Second Mate Le Cain was supposed to replace Third Mate Cousins at midnight on the bridge. However, the decision was made to allow LeCain to sleep a little longer because he was tired. LeCain was better trained, and his presence might have made a difference. He could have better supervised the inexperienced helmsman.

Third, the Coast Guard failed to monitor the progress of the Exxon Valdez through the passage. The position of the Valdez clearly appeared on the Coast Guard radar, but that no one was there to see it; the man in charge had gone for coffee. Had he noticed and radioed the Valdez, the spill could have been avoided (Lebedoff, p17). The Coast Guard failed to properly monitor the Valdez (Lebedoff, p17).

The attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit against Exxon summarized their view of the causes by stating that the wrong person gave the wrong order to the wrong person at the wrong place and the wrong time, and it was all made possible when Exxon gave the keys to the car to their captain (Lebedoff, p. 141).

Responses to the Accident: Prevention

Now that the details of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its probable causes are clear, it is possible to understand what measures they must take to prevent a similar disaster. It is the thesis of this paper that these measures are insufficient. Response to the Exxon Valdez was immediate. The responses were designed to prevent a similar spill from ever happening again. Perhaps the most significant attempt to prevent future accidents of this magnitude was the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90). There are four major relevant provisions in the Oil Pollution Act. First, it required that all single-hulled ships in the United States tanker fleet be phased out and converted into double-hulled models by the year 2015, at a cost of $160 million for each tanker (Kafka, p139). Second, potential liability for oil companies has been increased (Keeble, p36). They are required to pay damage costs of future supertanker damage (Chivers, p15). Third, regional response teams were established within the Coast Guard to deal with spills and shippers were required to have the capacity to respond to major oil spills (Crow, p22). Fourth, the OPA90 required that $1 billion be put toward an oil response and clean up fund. Last, the OPA90 prohibited any tankers that had spilled over one million gallons of oil from operating in Prince William Sound. The OPA90 also authorized federal funds for oil research. In addition, federal law raised spill insurance requirements for offshore oil industry to $150 million from $35 million.

The state of Alaska also reacted to prevent something like the Exxon Valdez oil spill from happening again. Alaska required that the oil industry have enough equipment to deal with a 300,000 gallon oil spill. There are new provisions for reimbursing victims; there is an increase in state monitoring of vessel traffic as well as increased inspection of the tankers (Keeble, p36). A second escort tug, with fully equipped spill-response capabilities is required to escort a tanker through Prince William Sound, in addition to the pair of vessels mandated by state and federal laws. Alaska called adding an additional escort tug an initial first step while oil companies redesign new and more maneuverable ships (Oil shippers, p 2).

In addition to state and federal laws, some individual oil companies have tightened their own rules to prevent a disaster like this from happening again. For example, Shell UK has modified their alcohol and drug policies and has instituted new education programs.

Evaluation of Responses

Could an oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez happen again? Are these regulations sufficient to prevent another disaster? Evaluation of these responses has focused on: 1) clean up measures; 2) prevention measures; and 3) revised oil policies.

Much attention has been given to preparedness to deal with an oil spill should one occur, perhaps because the effects of the Exxon Valdez were increased by the delay in response. However, according to a 1991 Greenpeace report, reliance on oil spill clean up is misplaced regardless of the response time. Large oil spills have never been cleaned up to any significant extent and they are unlikely ever to be cleaned up. (Chivers, p. 14). They argue that we lack the technological expertise to be able to prevent ecological damage in the event of an oil spill.

It has been argued that the only real defense against an oil spill is prevention. Once the oil has spilled it already has irrevocably affected the environment. There are four major tools of prevention: double hulled tankers, better electronics, highly trained crews, and heightened Coast Guard surveillance (Davidson). However, key prevention and response measures from the OPA have not been implemented or have been watered down.

One of the primary focuses of the OPA was the requirement of double hulled tankers. Studies evaluating the effectiveness of double hulled tankers are being conducted (Abrams, p2). However, it is clear that 90% of the oil entering the United States is still carried on dangerous single-hulled tankers (like the Exxon Valdez) (Chivers, p15). Even by the year 2005, only 25% of the fleet will be double hulled. In fact, the danger is increasing because many vessels currently in operation have structural deficiencies (including paper – thin plating, missing vents and hatches… and unsatisfactory repairs ) and cruise in heavily trafficked waters (Chivers, p. 15)

Moreover, monitoring tanker safety has had a dangerous unintended result. Many oil companies, instead of cleaning up tankers, have shifted operations to lightly regulated tugboat and barge combinations. It was a tugboat and barge accident that lead to the recent Rhode Island oil spill. That spill was caused by the negligence and poor design of the tugs involved. The problems with the tugs would have been caught if the tugs had been inspected. However, tugs are governed by very minimal safety standards and no inspections were conducted. Following that oil spill, they have introduced regulation of tugboats and barges into Congress.

Many environmentalists argue that the oil industry should use tractor tugs, tugs that can move in all directions not just forwards and backwards, instead of conventional tugs. Tractor tugs greatly improve safety during docking and passage. The oil industry, however, has argued that there has not been a tractor tug designed that would be suitable for Prince William Sound. The Industry continues to pursue upgrades to the existing tugs and escort procedures… (iter sh. Cowhide, president of Arco Marine.

To the extent that oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez, are caused by human error, the Coast Guard is targeting reductions in human errors as a way to reduce the likelihood of future accidents. They cite the three largest specific human problems as fatigue, inadequate pilot-bridge crew coordination, and inadequate technical knowledge. They are developing programs to eliminate risks by taking a systematic approach to managing safety performance and balancing critical components that influence people s performance: management, behavior, work environment and technology (Crow, p.26).

Less than one viewpoint, they could have prevented the Exxon Valdez disaster by an advanced oil transportation system designed to reduce human error. They could have prevented it if Alaskan state and federal governments. The oil industry, and the American public had insisted on stronger safeguards (Davidson, p307). On the other hand, it has been argued that prevention is not the key. Steve Kretzmann, a Greenpeace Energy campaigner believes marginal improvements can be made in clean-up and prevention but states The issue isn't how do we prevent oil spills, rather how do we get away from using oil? (Chivers, p14) Although oil spills attract the most attention they are not the largest source of spilled petroleum. Tanker accidents account for only 6% of oil routinely dumped into marine environment. More than double of the tonnage of oil in water comes from municipal and industrial waste runoff. Therefore, it is not sufficient to concentrate on the oil tankers safety and cleanup to decrease oil pollution in the environment. If tankers only account for 6% of all oil spills, then making safer tankers and imposing harsher restrictions is not the answer to solving the problem.

The ability to manage oil spills in the United States has improved greatly in the last few years. In spite of these safety precautions, there have been a number of recent oil spills. For example, in 1992, a tanker off the coast of Spain spilled oil which then had to be set afire. Also in 1992, 21 million gallons of oil spilled off the coast of the Shetland Islands. The oil slick was then caught in a hurricane. In 1996 in Moonstone Beach, Rhode Island, a single-hull barge carrying four million gallons of oil spilled 828,000 gallons. Also in 1996 the Sea Empress, a supertanker, went aground off the coast of S. Wales and spilled 70,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. In addition in 1996 a barge broke up in Texas and 714,000 gallons of oil spilled. Obviously, the new safety precautions are inadequate to prevent oil spills.

Moreover, there is reason to believe that things might actually worsen. The oil companies are still fighting the stringent safety standards and it appears that they might be successful (Postman). First, the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and independent oil spill reaction force has been established by major oil companies. Although the MSRC has yet to combat a large oil spill it is thought to be a step in the right direction in reacting to oil spills. However, recent Coast Guard regulations make it unlikely that the MSRC will continue in operation (Crow, p25). Second, although federal funds were authorized for research and development, little money has been spent at this time. The federal government was expected to take over leadership of oil spill research and development; this has not happened. Third, it has been charged that proposed Coast Guard rules for reducing oil spills are inadequate (Chivers, p15). Fourth, Congress is likely to reduce the insurance coverage requirements under the OPA 90 (Crow, p26).


Could an oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez happen again? The oil industry is not safe. Nine years after the Exxon Valdez spill people have forgotten about the horrible things that can come out of an oil spill. Just because there has not been a high profile oil spill does not mean that the government and the oil industry should forget about oil spill safety. At a time where all ships should use all available safety measures, most ships are loosening their standards. The government is lessening the regulations, and the oil industry is not using the best safety measures that they can. There is only a small percentage that use the much safer double hull tanker rather than the single hull.

Even if the oil industry would use all available measures, there is no way to prevent human error or machine malfunction. The oil industry is not safe and another Exxon Valdez disaster could happen at any time. 


  1. Abrams, A. (1996). Group ready to study double hulls. Journal of Commerce and Commercial, 408, 2B.
  2. Carr, T. (1991). Spill: The Story of the Exxon Valdez. New York: Franklin Watts.
  3. Chivers, C. Troubled waters: Despite a wake up call named Exxon Valdez, oil tankers continue to foul the world s waterways. E, 7, 14.
  4. Crow, P. (1996). U.S. spill cleanup capability shows marked improvement. The Oil and Gas Journal, 94, 22.
  5. Davidson, A. (1990). In the wake of the Exxon Valdez: The devastating impact of the Alaska oil spill. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
  6. Howard, L.S. (1996). Environmental liability is limited in tanker spill. National
  7. Underwriter Property & Casualty – Risk & Benefits Management, 9, 3.
  8. Kafka, P. (1998). Buoyant. Forbes, 161, 139.
  9. Keeble, J. (1991). Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. New York: Harper Collins.
  10. Lebedoff, D. Cleaning up: The story behind the biggest legal bonanza of our time. New York: The Free Press.
  11. Oil shippers add another escort vessel for tankers using Prince William Sound. (1996). The Oil Daily, 46, 2.
  12. Parrish, J.K., & Boersma, P.D. (1995). Muddy waters. American Scientist, 83, 112.
  13. Threat to safety fuels Shell UK s tougher drug controls. (1995). People Management, 1, 24.
  14. Postman, D. (1996). The spill and its spoils. Sports Illustrated, 85, 5.

Cite this page

An Analysis of the Factors Surrounding the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Disaster. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from

An Analysis of the Factors Surrounding the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Disaster
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7