Oil spills declining

GALVESTON — Former Gov. William “Bill” Clements may have been the poster boy for Texas’ official attitude toward oil spills in the past.

Governor from 1979 to 1982 and again from 1987 to 1991, Clements was known for scowling, an abrasive style and for off-the-cuff comments that tended to offend. He managed to offend people over oil spills during both terms as governor.

In 1979, the governor made national headlines when he opined that the Pemex spill — which was the largest ever in those innocent days, sending about 3.5 million barrels of crude into the Bay of Campeche and Gulf of Mexico and fouling a long stretch of Texas Coast — was “much ado about nothing.”

Clements, who died in 2011, offended people here in June 1990 after an explosion aboard the Norwegian tanker Mega Borg about 60 miles off shore of Galveston sent 100,000 or so gallons of oil into the Gulf, much of which wound up on local beaches. After a helicopter tour, Clements told the waiting press he’d had a hard time even seeing a slick and that things “could have been worse.”

“We’re blessed that it turned out this way,” he said. “It’s not near as serious a problem as was first anticipated.”

Although less Shakespearean, the comments inspired a bold hammerhead above a Daily News editorial: “Callous,” it read.

One blessing that may actually have been in the Mega Borg spill was that it prompted the Texas Legislature to enact a law that resulted in the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program and put the Texas General Land Office, rather than nobody, in charge of cleaning up spills and policing spillers.

As far as Greg Pollock is concerned, the situation in Texas has changed fundamentally in the years since the land office began investigating spills, holding companies responsible for clean up costs and issuing fines.

“There are absolutely less spills than there used to be,” Pollock, deputy commissioner of Oil Spill Prevention and Response at the land office, said. “People just won’t tolerate releases like they did in the past.”

Texas no longer downplays spills but instead vigorously monitors, investigates and assesses penalties for them, Pollock said.

 “We’ll send people out on Christmas Day to investigate a spill of less than a gallon,” Pollock said.

The change in attitude extends beyond the general public and into the energy industry, as well, he said.

And despite a March 22 collision between an oil barge and a freighter that sent about 180,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into Galveston Bay, the numbers indicate that spills are becoming less frequent.

The land office assessed administrative penalties for 397 spills statewide in 2001, the first full year for which it has records. The numbers have been mostly less than 300 in the years since, and less than 200 for three of the last five years.

The downward trend also has held for Galveston County, where the land office assessed penalties for 63 spills in 2001. It assessed penalties for 32 in 2013.

What’s also significant is the amounts spilled. Of the 3,693 administrative penalties assessed since August 2000, only 232 were for amounts greater than 100 gallons, according to land office records. More than 3,360 of the penalties assessed during the same period were for amounts less than 50 gallons. And more than 2,800 of the penalties were assessed for amounts less than 10 gallons.

“We just don’t see the very large spills like we used to very often any more,” Pollock said.

One question raised by land office records is whether the state is hearing about most of the spills ending up in Texas waters.

“I have a high degree of confidence that the vast majority of spills in Texas waters are being reported and investigated and that penalties are being assessed,” Pollock said.

The fact that many of the spills are very small argues that the land office’s efforts to identify and respond to spills is working, Pollock said.

He said spills are reported by the public, by neighboring businesses that don’t want to get blamed and by companies reporting their own spills because the sanctions for not reporting are greater.

The vast majority of penalties assessed since 2000 have been for less than $10,000. The largest was $86,000 against AET Inc. Limited for spilling almost 400,000 gallons in Jefferson County in 2010.

But there were other deterrents in the enforcement efforts, Pollock said.

“Nobody wants an oil spill,” he said. “There is nothing cheap about having an oil spill; they are very expensive to clean up; they disrupt your operations; you have the government showing up and looking over your facilities; and you don’t get that product to market.  

“There is nothing good about having an oil spill.”

Contact Associate Editor Michael A. Smith at 409-683-5206 or michael.smith@galvnews.com.

Reporter Laura Elder contributed to this report.

(7) comments

Steve Fouga

Just curious, are we moving more product than in the past, or less? Seems like normalizing by the amount moved would produce a more meaningful statistic.

Don Ciaccio

Maybe someone will be inspired to put heavy crude on his tombstone!

George Croix

Just a small sampling of info on Ma Nature's natural spills into the Gulf.
NO man-caused spill is acceptable, but a bit of perspective can at least be instructive, and reduce the demagoguery a bit...maybe...
Nobody can make another person see. They have to open their own eyes to do so...

George Croix

Well, the samples would help...
'Scuse my oldtimers disease......


Miceal O'Laochdha

Memories are short. Only a few decades ago, most of what is now referred to as "oil spills" coming from ships and smaller vessels were not "spills" at all, but just the normal discharges resulting from standard operational practices. Most people will think this means bilge pumping. Try thinking of a 500,000 barrel tanker that loads seawater ballast into the recently emptied crude oil cargo tanks, and then discharges the crude oil / seawater ballast mixture directly overboard before taking the next load of oil cargo? That was standard practice as recently as the 1970's. It was a he!! of a lost of oil in the bays, harbors and rivers of the world. The major changes in laws regulating what can be legally discharged into both close and offshore waters has very dramatically changed the conditions of those waters in a remarkably short period of time. When one is in the business of complying with those laws and sees the changing water pollution conditions of ports throughout the world during the course of those decades, the extraordinary effectiveness of laws like the Clean Water Act, for example is very clear to observe.

Spills resulting from vessel casualties, on the other hand, will always be a risk and regulatory laws have far less impact on the environmental results in these situations, as no one needs the encouragement of fines and imprisonment to try to avoid their vessels crashing into other vessels, docks, bridges, etc.; they are already doing their best to avoid that outcome, for many reasons. Certainly, the recent, local, spill resulting from a ship and barge allision was not helped in the slightest by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990; a law that required the barge to be "double-hulled". That "feel-good" feature of OPA '90 has done little or nothing over the last 24 years to prevent environmental damage; yet the collateral damage to the US shipping industry and US national defense was draconian.

Jake, to answer your question, we are moving more crude, and product, now than in the recent past, but doing it very differently.

Steve Fouga

So the fewer spills and smaller spills quoted in the article are even more impressive than stated.

Good job, petrochemical and shipping industries!

George Croix

When you consider that NOT ONE SINGLE THING we use and/or consume in our daily lives in this country of over 300 million people that has to be made or shipped can do so without hydrocarbon products being involved in some way and at some time, the lack of routine large scale disastrous events involving them is amazingly...amazing...

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.