Asleep at the wheel

The guy at the helm wasn’t the only one asleep at the wheel when the Exxon Valdez “fetched up hard aground” on Bligh Reef 25 years ago. Comfortably protected by corporate personhood, Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline executives had put quarterly profits ahead of operational safety. With a wink and nod from Texas headquarters, tanker captains regularly ignored Prince William Sound speed limits and shipping lanes. The US Coast Guard, apparently bored, had stopped paying attention. State oversight agencies were missing in action — until it was too late to prevent disaster.

Spill response was late, crazy, and ineffective. Our waters and beaches along more than 600 miles of coastline got oiled. Life in coastal communities turned upside down. We were never “made whole.”

The story is much the same from the Amoco Cadiz right up to the Deepwater Horizon.

Data from sources like The Oil Spill Intelligence Report and first hand accounts from people on scene make clear that most spills happen because of corporate cost cutting, negligence, or lack of oversight by government authority. Spill response is typically botched but you can’t clean up a big spill anyway.

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez we’re all talking about lessons learned and, to be sure, there are more than a few — but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves what’s changed?

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 did result in fewer spills in US waters and brought big improvements for Prince William Sound. Is that enough? Is spill prevention and response only a matter of technical fixes? I think not. Captain Joseph Hazelwood paid a price for his part in the spill but what were the consequences for company executives and shareholders shielded behind Exxon’s and Alyeska’s corporate veils? What about the bureaucrats and politicians who failed the public trust by looking the other way while the oil giants broke all the rules?

Until corporations and the human beings behind them can be held accountable for their wrongdoing it’s hard to imagine them choosing the public good over personal profit. Unless their ability to corrupt public servants and use wealth to twist the political and legal system ends we are apt to see more oil spills and other kinds of disasters. Oil spills are symptoms of a much greater social, political, and ethical problem that can only be addressed by widespread pressure from ordinary citizens for systemic change.

Where to start? One option is to get behind the effort to reject the idea that corporations are persons. This fiction was at the root of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe and, by shielding individuals from accountability for their actions, is doing violence to our whole society.

We the People Alaska (WtPAK) is a new political coalition aimed at ultimately assuring that only individual human beings exercise constitutional rights. Let’s not go to sleep at the wheel again. Check it out at and see what you think.