IN TEN YEARS YOU'LL SEE 'NOTHING' That's what Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl says will be left of the Valdez oil spill. ''A super job'' of cleaning up, he hopes, will overcome Congress's new coolness to Arctic exploration.
By Lawrence Rawl

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IF THE OIL SPILL proves anything, says Exxon's boss, it's that you need someone in charge who can ''move quickly without a lot of recriminations.'' Criticized for staying out of public view for nearly a week after the tanker ran aground, Rawl, 60, a genial onetime petroleum engineer, talked to FORTUNE at length in his vast, hushed office at the oil company's Manhattan headquarters.

How have you felt, living and operating as Exxon's CEO since the spill? It is something I wouldn't recommend anybody try to get themselves into. I've felt personally very responsible for doing everything that I can -- and I can do a heck of a lot within this company. One is to make sure that we do all that is humanly possible to get this thing cleaned up promptly. It's our problem the ship was on the rock. It's our problem the oil was spilled.

Did you consider immediately visiting the site of the spill yourself? Would that have enhanced Exxon's image? You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. I concluded that we were going to be up to our butts in alligators right here. I wanted to be able to deal with Congress, as well as operate the best we could around the world. I wanted to make sure that when Exxon USA said we need all the booms you have in London, we would get them. I've fished in Alaska, and I've been to Valdez a number of times, so I know what it physically looks like. From a public relations standpoint, it probably would have been better had I gone up there. But I would have used a lot of people's time gathering information, talking to the governor, and that didn't make a hell of a lot of sense.

Do you think it would have helped if you had been more visible early in the crisis? In hindsight it would have helped. Some newspapers were comparing the spill to Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol problem in 1982 or Union Carbide's Bhopal plant disaster in 1984. Now, Jim Burke ((CEO of Johnson & Johnson)) did an excellent job, but he had seven people dead from poisoned Tylenol tablets. I don't think he had a lot of options. Now, whether Warren Anderson ((former CEO of Union Carbide)) should have gone to Bhopal or not, I don't know. As I recall, he was temporarily taken into police custody.

What have you learned from all this? Well, take the case of the captain of the ship. We can certainly minimize this type of thing from happening again. We've had a policy on alcohol abuse since 1977. The first drink the captain had after he had been rehabilitated was a basis for dismissal. Someone in management should have been notified and our policy would not have permitted this man back on the ship. ((Captain Joseph Hazelwood entered an Exxon drying-out program in 1985. He is currently awaiting trial on three misdemeanor charges and has denied that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident.))

What would you do differently? Well, I'd go back to Genesis, and that man wouldn't have been piloting the ship. There's no question that there was bad judgment involved in even putting a person with a critical skill back in that kind of work. It is pretty clear we have to tighten those things up.

After the Exxon Valdez ran aground, did you have plans for such a huge disaster? Alyeska, the consortium of seven oil companies that operate the Alaska pipeline, had the material to control spills that occur in the loading and unloading of tankers. But Alyeska was not equipped to handle an unfortunate incident like this one.

What should have been done? With a large spill like this one, you can't get booms around it. Either there are not enough booms or the slick is spreading too rapidly. Sometimes burning the oil is useful. But of course we couldn't light that whole bunch of oil because we had a ship sitting there with people on it. There were pieces of oil that moved off that we could have lighted with a laser. But you lose that opportunity if you let the oil sit on the surface of the water. So the plan was for the shipper, Exxon in this case, to get on the scene promptly, gather the necessary equipment, and, in a large spill, apply dispersants, the chemicals that break apart the oil. On Saturday and Sunday, the first and second days after the spill, we had a wonderful window of opportunity. The spill was about four miles square, and until the wind really came up on Sunday night, it was laying right off the ship in the channel.

Why didn't you act immediately? One of the things I feel strongly about -- this catching hell for two days' delay -- is that I don't think we've gotten a fair shake. The basic problem we ran into was that we had environmentalists advising the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation that the dispersant could be toxic. In fact, the dispersant has been approved for use in California, which is a difficult place to get these kinds of things approved, and it was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was used on the huge Ixtoc well blowout off Mexico in 1979. Our tests on Saturday and Sunday worked to our satisfaction, and we didn't understand why we were wasting any time testing it. We finally got approval to start applying the dispersant in large quantities at 6:45 P.M. on Sunday. Then gale force winds sprang up. They were blowing 70 miles per hour; the wind took the roof off the hangar at the airport. Planes carrying the dispersant got up on Sunday, but they weren't able to do much. On Monday the weather was so bad they couldn't get up until the afternoon.

Specifically, who stopped you from applying the dispersant immediately? It was the state and the Coast Guard that really wouldn't give us the go- ahead to load those planes, fly those sorties, and get on with it. When you get 240,000 barrels of oil on the water, you cannot get it all up. But we could have kept up to 50% of the oil from ending up on the beach somewhere.

So you are saying that a Coast Guard officer and an Alaskan state environmental official prevented you for 48 hours from applying dispersant that would have reduced the damage by half? If it worked perfectly.

You have also been criticized for not mobilizing the people who were already on the scene to help with the cleanup. You know how that gets started. Somebody talks to a fisherman and says, 'Why aren't they out there doing something?' But it takes a little bit of time to mobilize the expertise that you have. There is a great deal of risk involved in working in that environment. Alaskan fisherman are fine on those boats, but less experienced people would find it hazardous to even work on shore. This is not exactly like going to the beach on Long Island. There are 15-foot tides, a lot of wind and current, and beaches with heavy gravel and steep cliffs. You don't want to get a lot of people killed.

So what would you do differently now? One of the things we realize is that we're going to need people sitting somewhere in a remote place in the middle of the night who are notified in the case of an accident, and we need somebody that shows up with the authority to move quickly without a lot of recriminations.

What are the cleanups and the lawsuits going to cost Exxon? Are we talking billions of dollars? We're not talking billions, but I don't know what we're talking.

How long will the cleanup take? I've taken a look at a lot of old spills, many of them much larger than this one, and some of them have been relatively inexpensive because the environment has just come right back. Even with the spill at Santa Barbara in 1969, a lot of expected damage didn't occur.

What makes you so hopeful? Well, to begin with, we're going to put a hell of an effort on it.

Ten years from now, the press will be returning to Valdez the way they've returned to the site of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. What will they find? Nothing. I would think they can return to Valdez a lot sooner than ten years from now. I don't think they will find much in terms of environmental damage.

No rocks covered with goo? No. There are a lot of things that can happen. Oil evaporates and it oxidizes. We can pick a lot of it up. It is surprising, but in World War II we lost 16 times more oil off the East Coast of the U.S. in the early months of 1942 when our tankers were torpedoed, and there was no permanent damage to the shoreline.

Will Exxon step up development of alternative fuels in response to the accident? As you know, most of them have drawbacks. We're in the second or third generation of a program for liquefying coal, and we've put a lot of money into it. We've been spending about $85 million a year on alternative fuel programs. The cleanest energy we've got is natural gas, but it isn't profitable to produce when it's selling at around $1.50 per thousand cubic feet.

How much damage do you think this accident has done to the oil industry's ability to develop oil elsewhere in Alaska? It is going to delay us, obviously. We feel that while we can't remove all the damage, we might turn the situation around if we do a super job cleaning up.

How do you persuade Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for exploration? Well, my ticket for persuading anybody on anything now is not so good. Before March 24 it might have been. I think Congress just has to recognize the cost to the nation if we do not explore ANWR. Once we got a go-ahead, the next step would be to develop and produce that oil in ways that are environmentally responsible. If the environmental requirements are too expensive, the oil won't get produced.

Is it possible to develop the oil and restore the area to the way it was? You can take care of the wildlife. But everything grows very slowly in the tundra. If you want the area to look pristine when we're done, we probably can't restore it. If you accept a reasonable compromise, we'd go ahead.

How important is the oil in the ANWR? / We found ten billion barrels at Prudhoe Bay, but production will start declining soon, and the field will be played out after the turn of the century. If ANWR is only a tenth as big as Prudhoe, it might be worth developing. But even if we start today it would take ten years before the first oil came out of there.

A lot of people are asking whether you can trust Exxon and the oil industry. They kept saying this wouldn't happen. We're going to demonstrate that Exxon is trustworthy. We're going to do everything possible to mitigate the effects on the environmental situation up there.

What advice would you give other CEOs on handling a crisis like this? You'd better prethink which way you are going to jump from a public affairs standpoint before you have any kind of a problem. You ought to always have a public affairs plan, even though it's kind of hard to force yourself to think in terms of a chemical plant blowing up or spilling all that oil in Prince William Sound. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I'm hoping with a little bit of luck to prove to you that we're going to make this thing work out better than the greatest, most optimistic expectations.