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 Exxon peddles corporate propaganda to science teachers

Editor's Introduction -- In March 1989, the Exxon Corporation's tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, on the southern coast of Alaska. The ship broke open, and some 11 million gallons of petroleum poured into the Sound, creating one of North America's worst environmental catastrophes.

Nearly four years later, some aspects of Exxon's response to the oil spill came to light. We quote from the New York Times for 19 November 1992:

Newly released transcripts of phone conversations in the hours after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill paint a picture of disarray in confusion as oil industry officials struggled frantically to grapple with the nation's worst environmental disaster.

The transcripts, prepared by representative[s] of the hundreds of plaintiffs who are seeking billions of dollars in damages in civil suits filed against the Exxon Corporation and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company from tapes made at Alyeska's command post in Anchorage, provide some of the clearest evidence to date that the industry was unprepared to deal with a spill of that magnitude.

They also suggest that company officials realized that for public-relations reasons they had better put equipment to work even if the task was hopeless.

Thirty-one hours after the Exxon Valdez ran aground . . . Don Cornett, Exxon's top official in Alaska at the time, said that it "doesn't matter if they are really picking up a hell of a lot of oil, at this point -- it makes a real bad impression with the public, without any activity going on," one transcript shows.

An hour later, an Alyeska official, Bill Howitt, asked Mr. Cornett, "So it behooves us to have everything flapping in the breeze that we can, whether it's catching oil or not?"

"Yeah, absolutely," Mr. Cornett responded.

Don Cornett is known to educators as "D.E. Cornett, Public Relations Manager, Exxon Company, U.S.A." That name and title appear in advertisements for a video that Exxon Company, U.S.A. (one of the Exxon Corporation's subsidiaries) has been offering, at no charge, to science teachers. The video is titled Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill. According to the advertisements, it focuses on the work of "scientists who responded to the oil spill and assisted with the recovery of the Prince William Sound environment." The video itself carries a label saying that it is "A Video for Students."

Here is an analysis of Exxon's product. Our reviewer, D. Michael Fry, is a research physiologist who specializes in the effects of pollution on birds. As he tells in his review, he has first-hand knowledge of the Exxon Valdez spill and its effects.

from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1993

How Exxon's "Video for Students" Deals in Distortions

D. Michael Fry

Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill is a very superficial and narrow glimpse at an environmental disaster: the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Nominally, this video is a description of how scientists helped to clean "oiled" wildlife, helped to remove oil from the environment, and assessed Prince William Sound's prospects for recovery. But in reality, the video is a public-relations device that minimizes and misrepresents the spill's impacts.

By selecting topics carefully, and by using a carefully phrased script, Exxon conveys the impression that the spill was not severe and that it did minimal damage to wildlife and to shorelines. All the people who appear in the video seem unanimous in their opinions and actions, helping to promote Exxon's version of what happened. No contrary views are acknowledged, and the federal damage-assessment process, prescribed by federal law, is ignored.

To show this one-sided and misleading video in a classroom would be a disservice to students.

The Exxon Valdez spill extended for hundreds of miles across Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, and it oiled more than 1300 miles of shorelines (which is approximately equivalent to oiling the combined coastlines of California and Oregon). The video tries to downplay all of this by saying that about 15% of the 9,000 miles of shoreline were affected by the spill, and that three-fourths of the affected shores consisted of bedrock.

Exxon's visual material consists largely of footage showing laboratory workers, clean shorelines, pristine vistas and healthy wildlife. The video almost entirely avoids showing the oil spill itself or its effects. The crippled Exxon Valdez is shown for only 10 seconds or so, oil-covered shorelines for about 20 seconds, and the 1989 clean-up operations for about 40 seconds. The video's total running time is about 22 minutes.

Some Illuminating Cases

The ways in which Exxon portrays the spill's effects on wildlife are especially interesting to me, because I saw some of those effects for myself. I arrived in the town of Valdez just two weeks after spill occurred. By then, oiled birds and sea otters were being brought to rescue centers, and I worked in the centers at Valdez and at Seward. I ultimately spent nearly four months in areas affected by the spill, where I documented the impacts on wildlife, developed methods for assessing damage to sea otters, studied the diseases displayed by oiled birds, and evaluated methods for rehabilitating such birds. Since then, I have continued to review damage-assessment procedures and reports of the spill's aftermath.

Exxon's video, in describing the spill's effects on animals, emphasizes bald eagles, sea otters, sea birds and pink salmon. All the discussions are distorted, but they are also illuminating, in one sense, for they help us to understand the video's purpose.

Bald Eagles

More than 140 oiled eagles were retrieved, dead, from Prince William Sound, and federal scientists estimate that hundreds more died but were not found. In 1989, eagles in areas affected by the spill were significantly less successful in breeding than were eagles in unoiled parts of Prince William Sound. The spill thus damaged the eagle population in two ways: by killing birds outright and by inhibiting reproduction.

Exxon mentions only that the eagle population of Prince William Sound was about 5,000, that Exxon's teams trapped 113 eagles, and that only 15 of the trapped birds were in such poor condition that they had to be taken to rehabilitation centers. Exxon does not tell that the trapping was done two to four months after the spill -- not during the first month, when mortality among eagles was highest.

More distortion occurs when the video, having failed to tell about the oil's adverse effects on reproduction in 1989, emphasizes that eagles bred successfully in Prince William Sound in 1990. That is true; by the 1990 breeding season, most of the oil had been cleaned up.

Sea Otters

The video mentions that about 1,000 oiled, dead otters were retrieved, and that the otter population in Prince William Sound numbered about 16,000. This misleading information is apparently meant to imply that the population will recover quickly. Exxon does not tell this: The otters that were killed (regardless of whether their bodies were retrieved or not) evidently numbered more than 5,000 -- perhaps a third of the entire population. And during the winter after the spill, the survival rate among juvenile otters was abnormally low, for two reasons. First, Exxon had used high-pressure streams of hot water to wash (and indeed to cook) the oiled shorelines; this harsh treatment had reduced the otters' food supplies. Second, some of the food that remained was contaminated with oil.

In the video, a physiologist says, "To come up here a year later and see the animals swimming in the Sound, and see them eating their food and raising pups, is a very encouraging, wonderful experience." The fact that there were far fewer adult otters than before the spill, and far fewer pups, is ignored.

Sea Birds

The viewer sees some of the 1,600 oiled birds that were brought in for cleaning. Many of those birds died; many more birds died on beaches or at sea. Exxon's narrator tells that 36,000 dead birds were retrieved, but he doesn't tell this: The number of birds that were killed may have been as high as 500,000, according to federal scientists. Moreover, the disruption of breeding colonies (caused by losses of adult birds) has led to breeding failures in every year since the spill occurred. In the case of the common murre (Uria aalge), the species that suffered the heaviest losses, recovery will take at least 20 more years.

Exxon's description of the spill's effects on sea birds is distorted further when the narrator says: "Fortunately, scientists know that the area contains large populations able to overcome these losses. For example, a federal study several years ago estimated 67 million sea birds living in the Sound and [the] Gulf of Alaska." That is deceptive; most of those birds represented migratory species that visit Alaska but breed in Australia or South America. Such birds are irrelevant to the recovery of populations that breed in the Gulf of Alaska and were decimated by the spill. Even before the spill, the breeding populations comprised only 6 million birds -- not 67 million.

Pink Salmon

The most strongly distorted segment of the video deals with the pink salmon. Exxon confuses and misleads the viewer by conflating wild salmon with salmon raised in hatcheries.

The Exxon Valdez spill began to foul beaches in March of 1989, when the eggs of wild salmon (eggs that had been laid during the summer of 1988) were hatching; many of these eggs and many of the newly hatched fry were killed or damaged by the oil. And when adult salmon returned to their spawning areas in the summer of 1989, many of those areas were heavily oiled. As a result, there were more losses of eggs, and the breeding stocks of wild salmon were further reduced. They have not yet recovered.

Exxon's video ignores all of these facts. The narrator says that the salmon population in Prince William Sound fluctuated widely during the 1980s, but he does not explain that the fluctuations were due to releases of young fish from hatcheries. The viewer gets the impression that the size of the natural population -- the population of wild salmon -- normally undergoes large changes from year to year. That impression is false.

Now the narrator tells that large numbers of salmon were caught in 1990 and 1991, and he adds: "That would indicate little, if any, long-term effect of oil on the pink salmon." Besides contradicting the conclusions reached during legitimate scientific studies, the narrator is again omitting crucial facts. The large catches of salmon in 1990 and 1991 (like the fluctuations during the 1980s) stemmed from hatchery operations. The salmon fishery flourished in 1990 and 1991 because hatcheries had released huge batches of young fish, not because the population of wild salmon had recovered.

Exxon's creation of such distortions is, in my opinion, clearly unethical. If a teacher were to present Exxon's video in a classroom, the teacher would become Exxon's accomplice.

The Wrong Message

The assessment of damage done by the Exxon Valdez spill has been a complex process, entailing more than 70 major scientific studies and giving rise to conflicting observations and a great diversity of scientific interpretations and opinions. Yet these studies are consistently ignored in Exxon's "video for students," which is not an educational resource but a public-relations device.

By using distortion, selective omission and the careful manipulation of examples, Exxon downplays the environmental damage done by the Exxon Valdez spill and leads the young viewer to believe that damaged areas, as well as damaged populations of organisms, will recover rapidly through natural processes. To me, it seems that this oil company is trying to convince the viewer that the enormous clean-up effort at Prince William Sound was unnecessary. This is exactly the wrong message to send about environmental ethics and oil pollution.


D. Michael Fry is a research physiologist and the director of the Center for Avian Biology at the University of California at Davis. He specializes in studies of the effects of petroleum and other pollutants on birds. He has served as a scientific advisor to the federal Minerals Management Service (the agency that supervises petroleum operations on federal offshore lands).

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