An innovative solution – regional citizens’ advisory councils
Perhaps the most radical innovation to come out of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the establishment of permanent, industry-funded citizens’ councils for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. These councils oversee both the oil transportation industry and its government regulators.
Formation of the council
In 2013, Rick Steiner, one of the council’s founders, spoke about the formation of the council and other improvements in the Prince William Sound oil transportation system stemming from the Exxon Valdez oil spill:
(Video not working in this page? View it directly on YouTube: Rick Steiner on the formation of the council)
Before the spill
Before 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill there was no easy way for the citizens who would be most affected by a spill to speak directly on operations affecting their communities and livelihoods. Some Prince William Sound residents had proposed the idea of citizen oversight of the oil industry, however these attempts were generally met with negative responses.
How might citizen oversight have helped?
The Exxon spill could have been averted by stronger prevention practices and more vigilant government oversight. Better response planning in advance could have lessened the impacts of the spill. The first three days after the Exxon Valdez oil spill afforded nearly ideal weather for oil recovery. Seas and winds were calm. But what little equipment was available wasn’t ready.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill was not simply a freak accident. While Exxon Corp. was immediately responsible, other factors were also at work. The oil industry, government agencies, elected officials and the citizens of Alaska share responsibility for the complacency that allowed the spill to occur and failed to ensure a prompt, effective cleanup.
- The oil industry failed to maintain adequate systems for preventing and responding to oil spills
- Regulatory agencies failed to protect public resources because of ineffective or inadequate oversight
- State and federal elected officials failed to pass laws strong enough to protect the environment and give regulatory agencies the funds they needed to protect public resources
- Except for a few outspoken local citizens, many Alaskans simply failed to pay attention
Much has been done in the years since 1989 to address the factors that lead to that catastrophic oil spill. New and revised federal and state laws and regulations are in place, and the oil industry operates with a heightened awareness of the consequences of a major spill.
The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council believes Alaska waters and the communities affected by the Exxon spill are, in fact, safer today. But we can never relax. Continued vigilance is essential to ensure that protections are not diluted and gains are not lost as memories of the spill fade.
- July 1989: At the suggestion of a group of Cordova fishermen, Alyeska met with a group of affected citizens from the region.
- December 1989: Many of the citizens from that July 1989 meeting, along with others, incorporated to form the Council.
- February 1990: The council signed a contract with Alyeska which guaranteed our independence from the industry, access to Alyeska facilities, and annual funding.
- August 1990: When the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed, it included language which mandated both the Prince William Sound and the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens’ Advisory Councils.