Ecological Tragedy, Memory and the Birth of Hope- A special MAHB feature from Michael Charles Tobias

| December 19, 2020 | Leave a Comment

Item Link: Access the Resource

Date of Publication: 2021

Publication City: New York

Publisher: NOVA Sciences Publisher

Author(s): Michael Tobias

Ecological Tragedy, Memory and the Birth of Hope- A special MAHB feature from Michael Charles Tobias

A special feature for the MAHB Community, Michael Tobias has shared a chapter from his forthcoming book, The Earth in Fragments: A Memoir by Michael Charles Tobias. This  chapter focuses on the crisis of fossil fuels in the context of the present Administration’s efforts to exploit Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; as well as the recent and pernicious history of the fossil fuel industry, as highlighted by personal details from behind the scenes when Tobias wrote and directed his documentary special for the Discovery Channel on the Valdez disaster, over 30 years ago.

A courageous and inspirational ecologist, Tobias’ Memoirs share his truly global perspectives, bringing together insights from paleontology, Renaissance art history, deep demography, biodiversity conservation and biosemiotics.  As we come to the end of a most challenging period in history, looking forward is ecologically and ethically pivotal to all our lives. Michael gives us the heart and knowledge to effectively embrace the coming  year.  You can find this particular  chapter here on the MAHB website, and more information about Tobias’ upcoming book and release – in January 2021, from NOVA Sciences Publisher in New York.

~ The MAHB

An Ultimate Collision

By Michael Charles Tobias  © M.C.Tobias, 2020

A full understanding of the cycles and fate of petroleum hydrocarbons in any ecological systems remains unclear, given the many factors of “weathering,” “evaporation,” “emulsification,” “dissolution,” “microbial oxidation,” and countless types of movement.1 I waited approximately five months after the March 24th, 1989 Valdez oil spill before commencing our film “Black Tide” for the Discovery Channel. I wanted viewers to viscerally grasp the likely long-term consequences of what had happened there in Prince William Sound, and the more than thousand miles of coastline that had been hit, the distance of Maine to Florida. In an initial hearing of the case, a Judge proclaimed in court, “We have a…man made destruction that probably has not been equaled since Hiroshima.”2 In fact, when the tanker hit the Bligh Reef in the middle of the night, spilling a disputed amount of oil – the official amount is 11 million gallons, but some have speculated it was much more3 – it was the largest oil spill in American history at that time.

That spill has never ceased, not really. The industrial gluttony is writ eerily in today’s headlines. By the ever-astute Julian Cribb’s calculations, in his upcoming May 2021 book, Earth Detox, and those of the UK InfluenceMap which he cites, some 250-fossil fuel producing companies, in combination with the full ledger of petrochemical industries is equal to “more than $6 trillion,” and hence, “the third largest economy on Earth.”4

When we made “Black Tide,” locals interviewed throughout Alaska were exhausted, fed-up, heartbroken, and angry. While the entire system of oil production and distribution was culpable – the technical preparedness and response desperately debated and ultimately inadequate to the task, “a sham” as an Oil Spill Coordinator for the State of Alaska described it – the real horror emerged from the obvious graphic mortality statistics. And seeing the individual lives snuffed out, smothered in oil.  The impact on wildlife was far beyond the mathematical collection of so many fragmentary assessments, beginning with the phytoplankton, the six principal stages of anadromous (natal spawning) Pacific salmon starting with their alevin and fry phases5; the millions of birds grabbing gravel soaked in oil, all the way to the large scavengers, like coastal grizzlies, and then the marine mammals. Their ancient feeding regimens were overnight devastated, just as thousands of seals and sea lions were pupping, newborns due the first week of May. 

Cold environments make the dangerous compounds of oil, like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons particularly pernicious and persistent. In the first week following the Valdez spill, more than 1,000 dead sea otters were picked up. Veterinarians trying to save those still alive found that otters had lost insulation in their fur, while their eyes and lungs, stomachs and brains had been savaged, livers crumbling like cereal. A leader of one of the wildlife rescue groups described hardened fishermen breaking down uncontrollably and weeping. There were tearful vigils across the state. 

As many as 1.5 million birds may have died. Grizzlies scavenging on dead corpses along the beaches would die slowly, usually out of sight, in the thickets. But nobody knows the full biological fall-out. A scientist for NOAA suggested that some “50%” of all the birds in the area that got hit by the oil would die.

In the end, the herculean clean-up effort was turned over to the ecosystems and to the natural course of stormfronts. On September 15, 1989, Exxon began to pull out. It was said that some 732 miles of beach had been cleaned up and that some 20% of the oil had actually been recovered. 24 tons of waste had been shipped out for incineration. With Exxon officially leaving the site of devastation, many were asking the basic questions: How could this have happened? Who was in charge? What now?

Scientists stayed on to measure the lasting impact of the oil. 18 types of oil exposure were analyzed on a monthly basis. Toxicity metrics in sub-surface oiled landscapes were examined by various agencies. A beach might look clean. Dig down a foot, and there was still oil, even on the microscopic pellets of zooplankton and phytodetritus in the intertidal areas. The whole food chain continued to reveal the long-term extent of the disaster. 

In the early 1970s, when Congress first explored the prospect of a pipeline, the fishing industry made their fears vocal. But by 1989, the Alaskan pipeline – long a done deal – was carrying 25% of all oil used in the U.S., the bread-and-butter of seven major U.S. oil companies; loaded onto supertankers in Valdez harbor and then shipped to refineries to the south. The National Transportation Board investigation of the disaster saw pervasive red flags throughout the system, which local, but ultimately powerless authorities knew were there, as three supertankers, each the size of the Eiffel Tower lengthwise, would haul a collective total of nearly 2 million barrels of oil in and out of Valdez harbor every day. The oil was not confined to barrels, but in containers. Had it been in barrels, the collision would have resulted in vastly less oil spilt.  

At the time of the disaster, Congress had already been discussing and advocating for double hulled tankers, an obvious method for reducing risk and providing a double internal buffer zone in ships. The rationale derived from clear and present risks. For example, between November 1988 and January 1989, there were 43 separate oil spills in Alaska. The size of those spills varied from 10,000 to 2 million gallons. Feeble questions of cumulative risk, and freedom from liability in the case of some foreign registered tankers, would enter court rooms in case after case, as the global hegemony of oil exploitation, and an ever-growing constituency of consumer addiction to petroleum-based products continued to escalate.

55 million acres of the northern Arctic were already committed to oil and gas extraction in 1989. 2 million barrels of oil were being produced there every day, starting in 1977 when the pipeline was completed. But that area, generally thought of as the north slope was also the site of continued oil-related environmental damage. In 1985, the first-year computerized records were even kept, there were at least 953 oil spills on the north slope. An unimaginably sloppy industry. We filmed one clean-up operation in action on the north slope 5 months after the Valdez disaster. In this instance, officials for the company involved insisted it was contained within two hours and had only impacted 1.6 acres of tundra.  In the Winter they said they would come back in and put so called overburden atop the area – an indigenous soil – to expedite remediation within a few years. That was the plan, at least.

The ecological jewel of the north slope is ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 30,136 km2 of which was designated as a wilderness area in 1980, the “Antarctica” of North America’s boreal ecosystems. The one pure Arctic biome left. But a whopping 1.5 million acres of that area were left unprotected, pending a thorough review of its oil and gas potential, even though research from the U.S. Geological Survey had indicated a 1-in-5 chance of there being enough oil to make it viable for exploitation. Those studies were not daunted then, or now, by the economics involved. At the time of the Valdez spill, the average domestic crude oil price per barrel was (an inflation adjusted) $38.13. Today, $39.42.6 By 1987, the U.S. Department of Interior was advocating aggressive exploitation, even though the region earmarked was home to at least 180,000 resident caribou, large at-risk musk oxen that calve in ANWR, polar bears, and 325,000 snow geese who migrate annually to ANWR coastal plains, along with countless other avifauna, at least two of the known 157 species that frequent ANWR listed as Threatened, under an Endangered Species Act which, since that time, has been weakened. 

At the time we made “Black Tide,” projections for ANWR exploitation involved the building of at least 280 miles of roads, 60 miles of new pipeline, 2 new ports, 5 permanent airstrips, and numerous processing facilities. Every calculated oil well would require at least the continuous cycling of 15 million gallons of water, much of which would, in turn, become toxic wastewater. Other water issues have since taken center stage: the Arctic’s actual scarcity of fresh water, particularly in Winter; water needed for everything from building roads to supplying workers with drinking water.7 In an Arctic environment, such magnitudes of construction and likely spills will have lasting impacts even longer than the kind of disaster that hit Prince William Sound. Some have argued that oil and other forms of eco-restoration in ANWR could take “100 to 200 years for wetlands, or 600 to 800 years for drier areas.”8

 An executive consultant with one of the oil companies interviewed in our film calmly declared that the exploitation of ANWR would not affect the biological integrity of the area, only altering its aesthetics. And that Congress was much more informed on such technical issues than we laypersons. At the time my team made “Black Tide,” over 20 billion pounds of oil were being dumped or spilled into the seas every year, so whatever Congressmen and women knew about the technical risks to the environment and human health, had clearly been ignored. And continues to be so. Accept that now, those brilliant congressional leaders and their lobbying cohorts must not only figure out how to adroitly dance above the unambiguous rallying cries of scientific acuity, the dissonance attending upon a long litany of oil disasters, but the previously and vastly underestimated crisis of climate change. 

 Indeed, any cursory examination of the 100 worst oil spills in recorded history, suggest a group of industries and subordinated government interests, completely out of control – in sync with a consumer base of indifferent excesses and abandon. 

 In 1969, a drilling platform offshore from Santa Barbara unleashed 3.2 million gallons of oil.9 During the 1970s there were over 24 major oil spills greater than “700 tonnes.”10 In the 1990s, “358 spills of 7 tonnes and over”; “In the 2000s there were 181 spills of 7 tonnes and over”.11 In the decade of 2010-2020, following the third largest known spill in history, that of the Deepwater Horizon, there have been officially “1.7 oil spills per year” > 7 tonnes.12  Or, as characterized by the insider industry ITOPF,  the last ten years have seen “62 spills of 7 tonnes and over, 164,000 tonnes of oil lost.”13 At 264.17 gallons per tonne (ton) that equals 43,815,880 gallons or 365,424,439.2 pounds. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico released 3.19 million barrels14; the 1991 Gulf War oil spill, between 2-and-4 million barrels.15 (One oil barrel equals 42 liquid gallons).

Later in the year following the premiere of “Black Tide” the U.S. Government mandated that all new tankers that were to ply waters between U.S. ports had to be equipped with double hulls, a measure adapted internationally in 1992 by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).16

As for the Exxon Valdez itself, the ship was towed to San Diego, $30 million spent on repairs, and renamed the Exxon Mediterranean, before being sold to a Chinese company which eventually named it the “Oriental Nicety,” before having the old, weary vessel scrapped on a beach at Alang, India in 2012.17 It is no mere afterthought that Alang (in Gujarat State) is the largest shipbreaking yard in Asia and is known as “the city [that] weighs heavy on the conscience of global shippers,” “with pathetic worker conditions and a poor safety record.”18 

But the systemic transformations that would ultimately eliminate supertankers and shipbreaking yards are the fuels themselves, of course. And their billions of human consumers. The clock is ticking on climate change more dramatically in the Arctic regions of the planet than probably anywhere else. According to an E&E News essay republished last year in Scientific American, “Temperatures around ANWR have risen 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1949.”19

And so it is with a grim, anticipatory set of frustratingly delayed scenarios that we hope to look forward to the major oil and gas multinationals completely and rapidly altering their core businesses into broad, alternative energy producers. As the Washington Post reported with respect to British Petroleum, “BP is trying to reinvent itself as an energy company in the age of climate change… [and] aims to boost spending on low-carbon projects from $500 million a year to $5 billion a year by the end of the decade.”20 That’s a start.

But in the meantime. ANWR is in the crosshairs of the final gasps of a global addiction to fossils fuels, and an imperial dynasty fast maneuvering to try and sell oil and gas leases before a new administration refastens our democracy and with it the promise to protect the north slope from insane exploitation.21 The first sales of leases are being hurried to the bidders’ block just fourteen days before the inauguration of Joe Biden.22 It will be up to the American people and our legal systems to deal with this ultimate ecological collision course.


This essay is adapted from a chapter in Michael Charles Tobias’ forthcoming book, The Earth In Fragments: A Memoir, to be published by Nova Science Publishers in January 2021.


  1. See 4. “Behavior and Fate of Oil,” National Research Council (US) Committee on Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects, Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US)  ©2003 by the National Academy of Sciences. National Research Council (US) Committee on Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2003. 4, Behavior and Fate of Oil. Available from: Bookshelf ID: NBK220700;
  1. See “Black Tide,” Discovery Channel, 1989, Written and Directed by Michael Tobias, Narrated by Christopher Reeve. Fine cinematography and co-field direction by Peter Pilafian; great editing by Joanne D’Antonio. See also, “Black Tide,” by Patricia Brennan, Washington Post, March 18, 1990,
  2. Bluemink, Elizabeth (June 27, 2016). “Size of Exxon spill remains disputed”. Anchorage Daily News.
  3. p. 85, Earth Detox – Why and How We Must Clean up our Planet, by Julian Cribb, Cambridge University Press, 2021. See also, IM, Influence Map, “Big Oil’s Real Agenda  on Climate Change,” An InfluenceMap Report, March 2019,, September 5, 2020. See also,“World Oil Consumption
  4. See “Life Cycle of Salmon,” Tosgiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,
  5. See “Historical Crude Oil Prices (Table),, December 3, 2020.
  6. See “Blocking Access to Scarce Water Supply Can Stop Oil Companies From Drilling the Arctic Refuge,” by Kate Kelly, Sally Hardin, and Jenny Rowland-Shea, Center for American Progress, September 15, 2020, December 3, 2020.
  7. See “Drilling Could Cause Extinctions in Alaskan Refuge, Government Plan Says,” by Adam Aton, E&E News, September 16, 2019, in Scientific American,; See also, See “Exxon Valdez oil spill still a threat: study,” Reuters, posted on ABC News Australia, n.a., May 16, 2006,; See also, Short, Jeffrey W.; et al. (2004). “Estimate of Oil Persisting on the Beaches of Prince William Sound 12 Years after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill”. Environmental Science & Technology. 38 (1): 19–22. doi:10.1021/es0348694. PMID 14740712. Short, Jeffrey W.; et al. (January 19, 2007). “Slightly Weathered Exxon Valdez Oil Persists in Gulf of Alaska Beach Sediments after 16 Years”. Environmental Science & Technology. American Chemical Society. 41 (4): 1245–1250. doi:10.1021/es0620033. ISSN 0013-936X. PMID 17593726. S2CID 19133912.  And, Peterson, Charles H.; Rice, Stanley D.; Short, Jeffrey W.; et al. (December 19, 2003). “Long-Term Ecosystem Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill”. Science. 302 (5653): 2082–2086. doi:10.1126/science.1084282. PMID 14684812. S2CID 13007077. See also, BBC News, “Exxon Valdez: Ten years on,” n.a. March 18, 1999 in which estimates for seabird mortality are “250,000,” “2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and an unknown number of salmon and herring.” While “ten years on, Prince William Sound looks back to normal, but local fishermen and environmentalists say it is crippled.”
  8. Christine Mai-Duc, “1969 Santa Barbara oil spill changed oil and gas exploration forever”. Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2015.
  9. Empirical View, “Decreasing Number of Oil Spills,” Our World in Data,, Accessed September 4, 2020.
  10. (International tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited)
  11. Op. cit., Empirical View
  12. Op. cit.
  13. “On Scene Coordinator Report Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” Submitted to the National Response Team, September 2011.
  14. Hosny Khordagui; Dhari Al-Ajmi (July 1993), “Environmental impact of the Gulf War: An integrated preliminary assessment”, Environmental Management, Springer New York, 17 (4), pp. 557–562, Bibcode:.17..557K, doi:10.1007/BF02394670.
  15. Chircop, Aldo E.; Lindén, Olof (2006). Places of Refuge for Ships: Emerging Environmental Concerns of a Maritime Custom. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 194.
  16. “Bulk- & Ore Carriers >175.000 DWT Part-2,”
  17. “Ship-recycling is one of the most polluting and hazardous industries in the world,” see “The Problems,” in “At Alang shipbreaking yard, worker safety remains a dusty dream,” by Malini Goyal, The Economic Times, October 23, 2016,, Accessed September 5, 2020.
  18. Op.Cit., Adam Aton, E&E, September 16, 2019.
  19. See “BP  makes ‘radical’ bet on clean energy, and the stakes are sky-high,” by Steven Mufson, The Washington Post, September 15, 2020.
  20. See “Trump Administration Rushes to Sell Oil Rights In Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” by Tegan Hanlon, Alaska Public Media, Environment and Energy Collaborative, November 16, 2020,, Accessed December 3, 2020.
  21. See “Trump admin to hold first ANWR oil lease sale,” by Heather Richards, E&E News, December 3, 2020,, Accessed December 3, 2020.
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