Oceana’s Pacific science director Dr. Jeffrey Short was the leading chemist for Alaska and the United States following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and has led numerous studies about the persistence and effects of oil on the ecosystem.
Twenty years after Exxon Valdez, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has thrust Dr. Short’s work back into the spotlight. He will lead research on subsurface oil during Oceana’s on-the-water expedition in the Gulf this summer and fall.
Online editor Emily Fisher spoke with him about the spill in July before the well had been capped.
What was your initial response when you heard about the spill in the Gulf?
It brought back nightmares of what I had gone through. I long ago made myself a promise that I would never go through another major oil spill again, so I was really glad I was no longer with the federal government.
Can you compare the Gulf spill and the Exxon Valdez in terms of ecological impacts?
The wildlife consequences are hard to compare because they were pretty severe in the Exxon Valdez. It happened at the very worst time of year, right at the beginning of the spring production cycle, which meant that seabirds and marine mammals were converging on the area to break the winter fast, so were consequently exposed to a lot of oil, and it killed a lot of them.
The jury is still out on how bad it's going to be [in the Gulf] and at first I was thinking we might dodge a bullet. As of a couple weeks ago, most of the oil that seemed to be out there looked like it was in fragmented chunks. But so much of it has been released now that there's a much larger continuous pool of oil which is a very dangerous thing.
Why is that so much worse?
Because if you're a seabird or a sea turtle or a marine mammal, and you're anywhere near it and you decide to go through it, you're dead. So it's just a really big kill zone. And what you're seeing now is chump change compared to what it will look like if that gets driven ashore.
Twenty years later, how much oil is still in Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez?
A little bit is still there because it got into an anoxic [oxygen-deprived] environment. So when oil seeped into a beach into that anoxic layer, it stopped weathering and just stayed there.
Will that happen in the Gulf?
It might. There are anoxic regions in the coastal marshes. You typically get anoxia associated with the bottom reed beds because there's so much organic matter that falls in there. It depends on how much oil comes ashore. It would associate with those coastal marshes, which are the most important biological part of the shoreline.
Do you think there is anything positive that will come from this in terms of movement on climate and energy policy?
Well, I sure hope so. I hope this will draw more attention to the larger consequences of our oil addiction.