.Disaster Déjà Vu

Having witnessed the Exxon Valdez and BP disasters up close, Dennis Takahashi Kelso is working to keep oil rigs out of the ocean

Dennis Kelso

THE SMELL attacks first. As soon as the helicopter lifts off the ground in Venice, La.— 60 miles away from the BP oil spill—the pungent odor gets into the back of your throat and you can taste the toxic fumes. This is how Dennis Takahashi Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, recounts it.

Kelso lives and works over in Santa Cruz—and now, in Washington, D.C., and throughout the Gulf of Mexico too, where he is working to help restore damaged ecosystems and the economy. He visited the Gulf within days of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that killed 11 workers on April 20. Initially, the government estimated between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels a day of oil were escaping. (A barrel of oil holds 42 gallons). Officials later upped that number, saying—prior to capping the well in mid-July—as much as 60,000 barrels of oil could be flowing into the Gulf every day. In other words, an amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez spill could be flowing into the Gulf every four days.

That’s a meaningful figure to Kelso. In 1989, he was Alaska’s Commissioner of Environmental Conservation. When the tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound on March 24, he was one of the first people on board assessing the magnitude of the problem. He saw the iconic images of the catastrophe firsthand, the dead sea otters and the oil-coated birds. He also saw the human tragedy: fistfights breaking out in his office doorway, crusty old fishermen crying in the street. Drug and alcohol abuse spiked and domestic violence and suicide increased as the fishing communities watched their livelihood coming to an end and Alaskan native communities began to fear for their food supply.

Kelso worked on the cleanup and spill aftermath for two years. He advocated passage of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Today, 21 years after Exxon Valdez, oil remains on the Prince William Sound beaches. So when he heard the news about an explosion aboard a drilling rig working on a BP well one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, Kelso felt a sense of urgency. “Here the oil spill continued with no end in sight,” he says. “How can it be 20 years later and we still have not made very much progress in spill technology—especially when we are choosing much higher risk technologies? The gap between gains that have been made in extracting oil and the capacity we have for responding to spills is huge.”


The BP gusher is the largest oil spill in American history, one President Obama has called the worst environmental disaster the county has ever faced, and flying over the Gulf in late April, Kelso sees patches of thick oil. It’s a deep rust—not black—sitting on the surface before breaking off into smaller streamers and glossy sheens. Then he sees a break—open water, which is stunningly blue and beautiful.

Almost two months later, on June 23, Kelso flew above the spill again, this time over the Florida Panhandle, about 300 miles east.

“The same kind of pattern: thick bands but not continuous wall-to-wall,” he says. “Lots of patches, some that look like hamburger patties, and then a big sheen, and then a stretch of open water.”

He then walked the beaches with Gov. Charlie Crist, witnessing white powdery sand laced with black oil.

Most recently, he visited Barataria Bay, about one hour south of New Orleans, meeting with government officials, scientists, fishermen and others affected by the spill. He returned to Santa Cruz July 21, a day that a storm headed for the Gulf stopped most of the work at the site.

Kelso describes going out in a boat on Bay Jimmy, near Grand Isle, La., with Philippe Cousteau, Jacques’s grandson and an Ocean Conservancy boardmember. They walked the marshy shoreline and saw heavily oiled, sticky brown grasses, oiled oyster shells and hermit crabs and a seabird hunting for food in the toxic grass. A barrier boom—intended to trap the oil before it reaches shore—had washed up on shore.

“It illustrated both how difficult it is and also how, if you’re using a technology like booms, you’ve got to maintain them actively,” Kelso says. “You’ve got to hold them in place and change them out when they oily, and in a situation like this, where you have a higher-than-usual tide, you have to take that into account, all of which is quite labor intensive.

“The level of oiling said to me—at least in the areas we visited—the real effort is going to be in the restoration stage. BP simply has to make the commitment to be in the Gulf and restore the Gulf for years and years and years. This is not going to be a few weeks of cleanup. They have an obligation to the children of the Gulf to be there for years and years and years.”

The BP spill, he says, brought back a flood of haunting memories of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and a dismaying sense of déjà vu.

“After Exxon Valdez, I had worked on a variety of things, including successfully prevailing in lawsuits against the Department of the Interior—where the Minerals Management Service lives—because of the rubber-stamp decisions that the Minerals Management Service had been making,” Kelso says.

The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, repeatedly refused to act on advice from its experts on ways to minimize the risk of oilrig blowout preventers, according to a New York Times investigation. It also concluded that deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf posed no significant risk to wildlife.

“So when the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, it was a bitter confirmation that the Minerals Management Service was not taking these risks seriously—and the consequences were huge,” Kelso says. “In the explosion, 11 people died from [that agency] being casual about safety standards.”

Plus, in order to ship oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal, Alaskan law required Exxon to formulate an oil spill “contingency plan.” Kelso approved the plan and says it provided a thorough response for specific scenarios and included detailed maps and knowledge from fishermen and other local experts. During the actual spill, however, Exxon didn’t follow the plan.

But at least there was one. “Compare this to the BP Deepwater case,” Kelso says. “There was no spill response plan.”


The BP oil spill, the Ocean Conservancy deployed teams of scientists and other experts to the Gulf (it has regional offices in Austin and St. Petersburg) and to Washington, D.C., “focusing on the three R’s: relief, restoration and reform,” lobbying for immediate assistance and long-term fixes. It’s an environmental disaster—the Gulf is home to half of the wetlands in the continental United States; 40 percent are in Louisiana alone. “They’re remarkably productive,” Kelso says. “For example, 97 percent by weight of the commercially valuable fish and shell fish species come from the Louisiana wetlands for that state. So you have to take that pretty seriously.”

The problem continues as oil and marine species move down the water columns.

“Some organisms, even when they begin in the marshes, move offshore; at different stages they’re at different levels in the water columns. Some have a survival strategy that allows them to go to deep water during the daytime when there’s light and they’re more vulnerable to predators, and then they come up at night when it’s dark to feed. So depending on where the oil is, if there’s an oil cloud, they may be traveling through it.”

As Kelso witnessed in Alaska and now in the Gulf states, the oil spill is a human tragedy, too. Eleven men lost their lives and countless others—fishermen, restaurateurs, charter captains and dive-shop owners, among them—see their source of income thrown into uncertainty. As Kelso talks about the spill, now thousands of miles away from the disaster, his sense of urgency is palpable.

“It is really hard for the affected people to look beyond the immediate crisis,” he says. “They want the oil out of the water. Nothing short of that is going to feel good. But what has to happen now—right now—is the Natural Resources Damage Assessment has to be on its way, and BP should be paying for the NRDA up front.”

The NRDA measures the damage, sampling oiled areas of the Gulf and areas that are not yet oiled to assess the environmental impact of the spill. (Read the Ocean Conservancy’s June 3 letter to the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce about the NRDA at www.santacruzweekly.com). It also takes into account the loss of tourism, fishing and other industry that depends on the ecosystem to determine BP’s liability.

“The damage assessment is the driver,” Kelso says. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have much. The restoration flows from that, and restoration is multiyear. But if you don’t know what’s broken, you can’t fix it.”

And then there’s the matter of reforming the laws that led to the oil rig explosion in the first place. To that end, Kelso and other Ocean Conservancy staff recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources.

“If we do not take advantage of the learning from this,” he says, “then shame on us as a society. People have died. People’s livelihoods are in grave danger. We need to understand what policies and legislation must change so this doesn’t happen again.”

AVOIDABLE CATASTROPHE: Dennis Kelso believes government inaction retarded the development of technologies that could have prevented the BP disaster.

Positive Reaction

How California’s biggest oil spill changed the world

THE REVOLUTIONARY environmental legislation passed during the 1970s—in Washington and in Sacramento—owes much to an oil spill and the reaction that followed.

In 1969, a Union Oil Company platform off the coast of Santa Barbara suffered a blowout. Over the course of 11 days, 200,000 gallons of crude oil oozed into the ocean while workers tried to cap the rupture. For the first time, the nation saw images of sea birds and marine animals drenched in black oil, and read stories of dolphins whose clogged blowholes caused massive lung hemorrhages. An estimated 3,686 birds died after contact with the oil.

Kelso says the then-worst oil spill in the nation’s history galvanized a movement.

“One of the very powerful things about the Santa Barbara spill was that it brought people of diverse political views together in the region, but also throughout California, and it had a huge impact nationally,” Kelso says.

“There had been this assumption that it would be safe because proponents of drilling and the company had said it would be,” Kelso says. “Suddenly, the evidence was to the contrary. So it directly influenced the public consciousness that contributed to major national environmental legislation—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act.”

Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. A year later, millions celebrated the first Earth Day and by 1972, President Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts into law.

It not only affected the national landscape. Stronger protections for California’s coastline also flowed from the Santa Barbara disaster.

“People in California were worried about prevention and also about what might happen if there was another spill,” Kelso says. As a result the state Legislature banned new offshore drilling leases and passed laws to strengthen the state’s spill-response capacity.

Nearly 30 years later, however, the tides seemed to be turning. In 2008, President George W. Bush lifted an executive order banning offshore oil drilling. Congress allowed the moratorium to lapse a year later. In March—a month before the BP explosion killed 11 workers—President Barack Obama opened up new areas—excluding California—to offshore drilling leases.

Closer to home, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger saw oil rigs as a budget fix, proposing a new oil lease off the Santa Barbara coast. Schwarzenegger said the Tranquillon Ridge project would generate $140 million for the upcoming budget year and would prevent severe cuts to state parks.

Currently, 27 platforms operate off the California coast. In 2009 they produced 13.3 million barrels of oil.

Despite the seeming momentum to drill, “I don’t think there was ever much chance that California was going to be opened up for drilling in federal waters,” Kelso says.

“The discussion of opening offshore areas to drilling was on everyone’s list of things to pay close attention to, but even then, the California congressional delegation was pressing for exclusion of California,” Kelso says. “At the state level, Californians have said, ‘Our economy and out way of life in California depends upon the ocean and the coast. We’re not going to put those at risk even if the risk is small because the stakes are too high.'”

Then came the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Shortly after, Obama suspended plans for future offshore drilling and Schwarzenegger yanked the Tranquillon Ridge project from his proposed state budget.

“My support for the T-Ridge project here in California was based on numerous studies making me feel that it was safe to drill,” Obama said. “All of you have seen when you turn on the television the devastation in the Gulf. And I’m sure that they also were assured that it is safe to drill. I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill, oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem. It will not happen here in California.”


1896 First offshore oil wells are drilled in the Santa Barbara channel, set on piers extending into the ocean from the beachfront.

1920 Oil boom occurs in Huntington Beach, as the then-largest California oil deposit is discovered. Wells spring up overnight, and the town’s population grows from 1,500 to 5,000 in less than a month.

1968 Union Oil Company of California (the company later became Unocal and is now part of Chevron) establishes a drilling platform off the Santa Barbara coast.

1969 The Union Oil Co. platform suffers a blowout, spewing 200,000 gallons of crude oil. It takes workers 11 days to cap the rupture. Sea birds and animals are hit hard; oil clogs dolphins’ blowholes, causing massive lung hemorrhages, and an estimated 3,686 birds die because of contact with the oil.

1969 California State Lands Commission halts new leases on offshore tracts. Congress passes the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires Environmental Impact Studies for all major developments.

1970 Earth Day is born. The Santa Barbara spill’s notoriety receives credit for launching a major environmental movement nationwide.

1972 President Richard Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency and signs both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts into law.

1981 Congress votes to stop the sale of leases off the coast of Northern California. The moratorium is included in the Interior Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1982.

1984 The California Legislature codifies the ban on offshore oil drilling when it approves the California Coastal Sanctuary Act, which prohibits new leasing of state offshore tracts. Companies with existing leases, however, can continue to drill.

1989 The Exxon Valdez oil spill again increases environmental concerns. The Interior Appropriations Act for the following year includes moratoria on leases off California, Florida, Massachusetts, Bristol Bay of Alaska, and the Atlantic Ocean from Rhode Island to Maryland. President George H.W. Bush signs the bill into law.

1990 President Bush issues an executive moratorium banning new federal leasing through the year 2000 in many offshore areas, including California.

1990 The American Trader spill off Orange County increases the pressure on California’s Legislature to step up the state’s response to oil spills. As a result, the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act of 1990 establishes the Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

1998 President Bill Clinton extends the moratorium through 2012.

2007 The COSCO Busan oil spill dumps 58,000 gallons of oil in the San Francisco Bay, leaving dozens of seabirds dead and coated in black goo. Scientists say the spill could hurt wildlife for years.

2008 President George W. Bush rescinds the executive order banning new offshore oil drilling.

2009 Congress allows the moratorium to lapse.

2010 President Barack Obama proposes opening new areas for offshore oil drilling. The president’s proposal doesn’t include any new drilling off the California coast. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says a new lease off the Santa Barbara coast will help plug the state’s $20 billion budget hole.

2010 The BP disaster occurs, quickly becoming the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.


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