Maybe some good can eventually come from the big oil spill off Alaska after all.
But not unless government and industry stop exchanging recriminations, start anticipating problems instead of just reacting to them, and follow through on some promising new initiatives.One such initiative is the creation this week of a new $6 million fund, created with equal contributions from the oil industry and Washington, to find and develop better ways to clean up oil spills.
That's clearly a major improvement compared to the $150,000 that previously was being spent on such research. But the new money is intended to last only three years. What then? Scientific research can't reasonably be expected to meet artificial deadlines.
Even more help could come from the intensive review announced this week by the Department of Interior to determine if changes are needed in federal regulations and policies on cleaning up oil spills. The review is bound to be more productive than the mutual criticism Exxon and Washington have been voicing lately, blaming each other for delays in reacting to the spill. Certainly there's plenty of blame to go around.
With the benefit of hindsight, the reduction of cleanup crews and programs by both Exxon and Washington prior to the Alaskan spill were exercises in false economy. After the spill, all concerned seemed slow to recognize the magnitude of the spill and the size of the response it required. Even if the problem had been fully understood, fast action is hard to get when more than a dozen federal and state agencies are involved in dealing with oil spills; both Alaska and Washington need to do a better job of focusing government responsibility.
Even if cleanup crews had acted promptly, they still would have been handicapped by inadequate recovery equipment. Those inadequacies were demonstrated when containment booms broke repeatedly from the force of ocean waves, while syphoning gear was so slow it hardly made a dent in the amount of oil in the water. Even now, there's room for wondering if Exxon is wise in rejecting military help and hiring civilian crews to take care of the cleanup.
One final point: So far, Exxon has spent $25 million to contain and clean up the oil spill - and the end is not yet in sight. Then there are the many thousands of motorists who have destroyed their Exxon credit cards in reaction to this spill. Clearly, it pays in hard cash as well as in good will to spend money on prevention instead of just waiting to react to a crisis. If this lesson is learned, eventually some good can come from the big Alaskan spill.