After the trauma of the Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaskans were ready
to blame somebody—but never themselves.
On April 29, 1989 I started pointing fingers.
What causes oil spills?
Ask an Alaskan today what causes oil spills, and you'd probably get a quick catalog of replies.
"Drunk skippers," most would probably answer.
"Sloppy procedures," a more thoughtful citizen could reply.
"Greed," another might say, getting closer to the truth.
And I would add another, even more depressing cause: I think bad government causes oil spills.
To be more precise, bad government, inadequate regulation and citizen apathy create the circumstances in which not only is an oil spill more likely to occur, but in which the capacity for response is woefully inadequate.
How so? A few examples to illustrate the point:
(*) It was the Dankworth Oil Senate, elected on a cresting wave of oil contributions in 1980, that repealled what was left of the landmark tanker safety legislation passed in the 1976 and 1978 legislatures. The same bunch that was giving oil companies the ELF tax break was taking away environmental protections that earlier lawmakers had built in.
In that way, the absence of campaign reform causes oil spills.
(*) Later, the same breed of oil-fed lawmaker was meeting in closed finance committee meetings to prepare budgets that cut the Department of Environmental Conservation to inadequate levels. It left us without the muscle to police the multi-billion dollar industry, and contributed to the Prince William Sound disaster.
In that way, the lack of a tough, enforceable open meetings law causes oil spills.
(*) Across the state, Alaskans stopped paying income taxes and grew accustomed to the low property taxes propped up by oil. When the gravy train pulled away, we were unwilling to shoulder our share of the burdens again, and so let government services erode and deteriorate rather than paying a little bit more ourselves.
In that way, citizen apathy causes oil spills.
(*) Through all of the boom times and bonanzas we celebrated in the era of oil wealth, Alaskans wanted to believe they could have their cake and eat it to -- that we really could believe the oil companies when they promised to be good corporate citizens, cautious stewards and willing environmentalists. We wanted to believe them because it made it easier to enjoy our subsidized housing loans and new civic centers and dividend checks.
And in that way, the essential corruption of our citizens causes oil spills.
You will hear it argued that because there is much blame to go around, we shouldn't focus so much attention on Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. But that is nonsense. Whatever the structural failures of our government and collective will, those are the agencies most responsible for the spill and the devastation that the bungled clean-up has caused.
There is no excuse for those failures, and you will hear none offerred here.
But I will mention the great lesson to be learned: that there is no more place in the public policy debates for trust or the assumption of good faith. Precise, determined, relentless vilgilance must become the touchstone of our collective stewardship of Alaska.
That effort demands open meetings, and campaign financing reform, and individual citizen responsibility.
This is the death of trust. But it can be the rebirth of citizenship.