The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Engineering Essay



Exxon Valdez oil spill occurs shortly after midnight of March 24, 1989. The incident happens when a tanker carrying 53 million gallon of crude oil runs aground on Bligh Reef causing severe damage to the vessel and leaks approximately 10.9 million of crude oil to the sea. The question of how the vessel runs aground was in everyone's curiosity. Initial investigation reveals that it might be a possibility that the person maneuvering are under alcohol influences. Furthermore the incident happen in an area that was lack of skill to prevent such incident and the technology and equipment availability to cope with the spill.


The biggest oil spill ever happen in the history has been a lesson for the people in the industry to not repeat the same situation that cause catastrophic damage to the environment and also suffers to the people around PWS. Even though the incident takes place in PWS, but the spilled oil travel miles and miles away. US coast guard tries to cope with the spill but in the end failed due to massive rupture of the tanker and facing with storm that hits PWS. Eventually the spills are spreading faster than anyone can imagine causing miles of shoreline covered with sticky black oil. Besides that, the oil spill rescue teams are lack of skill and eventually equipment making the cleaning up tougher.

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Diagram 1: Exxon Valdez that runs aground at Bligh Reef

1.1 Overview of Exxon Mobil

Exxon Mobil is the world largest private oil company and conducted business in over 200 countries which involve petroleum and natural gas. They are the leading company in the industry of petrochemical business and energy. Exxon Mobil explorations on petroleum product are conducted in over six continents and the numbers of new exploration are growing by the days. In year 2000 the company record profits over 250 %. [1]. Technology are getting more advance and so does the energy consumption, therefore Exxon Mobil never endings exploration are to maintain the balance of the growing needs of energy.

The companies hold business in some area that related to energy such as gases, oil, coal and chemical. Exxon Mobil has upstream activities in some 50 countries and is a leading producer both on and offshore in nearly all relevant areas and including the newest that is the Gulf of Mexico, offshore West Africa and the Caspian Sea [3].

1.2 The company aim and objective

Exxon Mobil Corporation are committed to be the world's first petroleum and petrochemical company that aims for high quality production of petroleum products thus giving the customer a better service with a competitive price. The successful of the company also depends on the customer therefore the company is upgrading their technologies in an innovative and responsive ways in order to not neglect the customer preferences. [2]. Besides that, shareholders are not neglected as well as the board of the company keeps on enhancing the relation between the investor by rewarding the investor with superior returns. The company effort in preserving the investor is due to the long term value of the investment dollar entrusted to the company which drives the management of the corporation. [2.].

The immense size of the company consists of thousands of employees thus the corporation strives to hire and retain the most qualified workers to work for the company. Adding on the corporation commitments to the employees are to provide a safe working environment and always treated with trust and fair treatment. Exxon Mobil operates worldwide, therefore the company aims it to have a good cooperation with the locals and obey the rules and regulation thus having respect to the local customs and civilization on that particular area. Furthermore the company objective is to set up a safe running and environmentally responsible operations on the area the company conducted exploration.

2.1 Introduction of petroleum

Petroleum is best known as crude oil which it contains a mixture of hydrocarbons such as octane gases, waxes (solid hydrocarbons) and bituminous material such as asphalt and tar. [4.]. Crude oil are separated into 3 stages of processes that is separation, conversion and finally treatment. Separation processes involve cracking that breaking up molecules of hydrocarbon into fraction of a smaller hydrocarbon. The process uses high temperature of steam to break up ethane, butane and naphtha into ethylene and benzene. Fluid catalytic cracking is where the uses of zeolite, aluminum hydro silicate, bauxite and silica alumina to speed up the reaction [5.] thus crack heavy gas oil into diesel oil. Gasoline and kerosene are produce by hydrocracking which the process differ from fluid catalytic cracking in such a way that hydrocracking are lower in temperature, higher in pressure and uses hydrogen gases. Once the crude oil is separated into its individual components, conversions are the process to add value to the final products. Finally the product are treated and refined to meet the high demand for petroleum product throughout the world.

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Diagram 2 : The fluid catalytic cracking process

2.2 Exxon Mobil refinery process

Exxon Mobil method of processing crude oil are same as other companies refining process which uses heat, pressure and chemical reaction to transform crude oil into hundreds of petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel ,motor oil, greases and chemical feedstock. The process begins offshore when the oil drilling platform in the deep sea drill up the crude oil and transported the crude oil onshore for processing. Crude oil are then transfer to the distillation tower where intense heat is being supply. As the vapors rise inside the tower, different compounds cool and separate. Heavier molecules rise a short distance, while lighter ones rise further [2]. When the molecules condense to liquid form, they accumulate on collection tray at different level inside the tower and here where the specific petroleum products are obtained. Modern day refinery process are more advance as variety of process and chemical catalyst are used to break down and then recombine again the molecule to produce a better and high performance petroleum products [2]. The fluid catalytic cracking was invented by Exxon Mobil before the World War 2. They are the first to achieve the most revolutionary chemical engineering in 50 years [2].

3.1 Risk that lead to oil spill disaster and pollution

Oil spill can be a disaster to the human, environment and also the marine life. Therefore in order to prevent the risk of pollution, Shell Corporation implemented the "oil spill emergency response team" which was inspired by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. [6]. Accident can happen anytime without people conscious. Other than tanker, oil rig can cause massive oil spill indeed such as what happen to the BP in Gulf of Mexico. The accident happen in Gulf of Mexico is cause by a blowout.[9]. Such incident happens are due to lack of awareness and monitoring by the worker. In the event of the spill, for Shell Company they will consider the spill as large and will mobilize all the staff from around the world to help in the cleaning up of the spill. Besides that Shell has access to oil-industry funded centers that provide equipment and personnel to manage major oil spill which located in Europe(Southampton), Bahrain, United States and Far East(Singapore).[6]

3.2 Event Leading to the Spill

The incident happens on March 24, 1989 where a tanker by the name of Exxon Valdez runs aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound (PWS), Alaska. The tanker was en route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California carrying 53 million gallon of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. [7]. During that day the tanker spill approximately 10.9 million gallons of crude oil to the Alaskan sea causing severe damage to the marine ecological system. Exxon Valdez consist total of 11 tankers and out of that 8 were badly damaged due to the collision. The spill eventually spread from Valdez to Homer and finally hits the straits of SHELIK affecting all the marine life and landed on more than 9000 miles of shoreline (diagram 3). Before the incident the tanker departed from Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal at 9.12pm, March 23, 1989. [7].

Diagram 2: The affected area

On the wheelhouse an expert ship's pilot (William Murphy) was hired to plan the vessel route together with the captain (Joe Hazelwood) and Helmsman Harry Claar who was steering at the time departed and 2 other members. Captain Hazelwood was in charge when William Murphy left the wheelhouse. During that time they encountered icebergs in the shipping lanes and the captain ordered Harry Claar to go around the ice. Shortly after that, the captain handed the wheelhouse to his colleague Gregory Cousins with a precise instruction of the alternate shipping route. The wheel man who was initially Harry Claar was then handed the wheel to Helmsman Robert Kagan to steer the 986 foot long vessel. Momentarily after that and for some reason that was unclear until today the wheel man fails to turns the 986 foot long vessel and eventually maneuvering the ship to a collision that will be the greatest mistake in transportation history.

The time of collision was reported at 12.04 am March 24, 1989 and during that time the captain was in his quarters. [7]. Shortly after the accident the vessel member contacted the coast guard and the coast guard responded with limited knowledge on oil spill and man power. Dan Lawn response to the spill and was reported the first person to arrived at the scene within 3 hours. He is the Valdez district office manager from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). [8]. Lawn documents the spill with his video camera once he reaches the vessel. He claim that the oil can be seen bubbling from below the ship and the spill rate estimated to be 500 gallons per second. He called Anchorage and Valdez regarding the spill and provided them with latest update of the incident using the ship's satellite. In the mean time Lawn did called for contingency plan to the Alaska Terminal for equipment to cope with the spill but was reply with "the equipment was on its way" by the Alaska officials.

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came out with few probabilities after conducted investigation of the incident and state that the wheel man at that moment was unable to properly maneuvering the vessel due to fatigue and excessive workload. Second probabilities are the navigator failed to provide a proper navigation watch due to alcohol influences. Third probabilities are the company failed to supervise and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the vessel. Fourth probabilities are regarding the US coast guard that unable to managed traffic system. The last probabilities are the vessel lack of effective pilot and escort services.

4.1 Consequences of the oil spill

4.1.1 The economy

The aftermath of the spill carve plenty of scars on Prince William Sound economics. The major loses are the recreational sport fishing following by the loss of tourism. The tourism industry loses due to labor shortage to provide manpower to drives the industry.[7]. People are turning into cleaning up the oil spill because of high pay from the Exxon Mobil. Besides that, the fishing areas are full with contamination causing plenty of the marine life died thus people are afraid to consume the fish. Due to the spill the animals suffers the consequences as their food chain destroyed. In order to prevent the animal from dying the corporation must relocate, replace and rehabilitate for all the animals such as seabirds, shorebirds and the marine and terrestrial mammals. The process includes the cost of raising young to maturity, relocating adults, and the cost of restoration or enhancement projects. [7].

4.1.2 The Ecosystem

The term recoveries are quite hard to define and measure for the ecosystem in Prince William Sound after the spill. PWS environment are loaded with surprising amount of toxic crude oil and able to induce chronic biological exposures and had a long term impacts at the population level. [7]. Three major pathways of long term impact emerge which are chronic persistence of oil, delayed population impacts and indirect effects of tropic and interaction cascade. [7].

4.1.3 State of recovery

15 years after the spill research shows that some of the fish and wildlife species are not totally recover. Despite the discovery, the researcher also finds that there were no solid answer for which the oil plays in the inability of some populations to bounce back. Furthermore there were no baseline data regarding the number of species existing in PWS.

4.1.4 Oil remaining

After 20 years of the spill, the concerns are the crude oil buried underneath the surface of the beaches. [10]. A study was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2001 along 8000 miles of coastline reveal oil in the sediments. [10]. NOAA research shows that the subsurface oil can remain dormant for many years and it is toxic. The major concern is that when a tidal reworks the beaches and sending the oil into the open sea causing catastrophic pollution to the marine life again.

5.1 The management improvement and changes

Exxon Mobil take immediate responsibilities for the spill, clean up and compensation to the affected local's. The company paid 300 million immediately after the spill and to 11,000 Alaskans volunteer and to the business affected by the spill. [7].Besides that the company paid 2.2 billion dollar for the cleaning up cost for Prince William Sound. Exxon Mobil also pays compensation to the state and federal government with 1 billion dollar. After the catastrophic event that shocks the world, major improvement are implemented to prevent another disastrous oil spill from happening and the planning response to the spill. US coast guards are now monitoring the activities around the Valdez narrows especially fully laden-tankers via satellite. Besides that, there must be 2 vessels that escort each tanker whenever the tanker passes through. Alaska Congress enacted legislation that every tanker in Prince William Sound must be double-hulled. Another safety measure implemented is there are now more than 40 miles of containment boom, stockpile of dispersant and fully equip with the system use to apply the dispersant such as helicopters, planes and boats are fully loaded in PWS. The contingency planning in Sound are constantly review by a safety audit team and every year there is a drill on coping the spill such as Exxon Valdez.


Even though Exxon Mobil take a drastic step in coping with the oil spill by paying compensation to those affected and cleaning up, the risk of the spill still exist today. Researcher still finds oil around the shoreline. Despite that, Exxon Mobil must have done the cleaning in every bit of corner of the shoreline completely in order to free PWS from any remaining oil embedded beneath the shoreline. Besides that company must have the responsibilities on reconstruct PWS in order to rebuild the nature of the environment as it were before the spill.