Even if I walked to work each day, I would still be indebted for my daily bread to cars and trucks. The many goods we buy in stores arrive at their destinations courtesy of the internal combustion engine. Motors and engines are woven into the warp and weft of all our economic activity from farming to manufacturing. Although small amounts of biofuels are mixed with the gasoline we purchase, most of the fuel we use comes from crude oil.
Energy companies work night and day to develop and deliver petroleum and the many products made from it. Most of that work is uneventful and unseen by the public. But when things go wrong, a disaster of epic proportions can ensue.
Twenty five years ago — on the night of March 23, 1989 — the Exxon Valdez left the Alaskan port of Valdez filled with 53 million gallons of crude oil from the North Slope. The story of what happened as the giant ship, nearly 1,000 feet long, left the dock is recounted by Angela Day in her new book Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster (WSU Press). At first, the journey was uneventful. A harbor pilot was on the bridge to help steer the supertanker through a narrow passage. As was the custom then, he departed the vessel at that point, leaving Captain Joseph Hazelwood in charge of the bridge.
Day tells the story of how Hazelwood made some fateful decisions, including turning over the ship’s controls to a junior officer. As the giant vessel moved through a part of Prince William Sound that was thick with icebergs, the officer made more than one decision he would regret. Despite warnings from the lookout, within minutes the ship slammed into Bligh Reef, where it was grounded. As later inspection would reveal, the seven-eighths-inch steel hull had been punctured by the force of the impact of the ship on the reef. The tanker gushed oil at the rate of 14,000 gallons per minute. By dawn the growing oil slick was two miles wide and three miles long.