"We should be heroes!"--Spokesman Bill Hickman of the American Petroleum Institute, quoted in the Seattle Times.

THE OIL INDUSTRY CELEBRATED THE 10TH anniversary of the wreck of the Exxon Valdez last week with a four-day International Oil Spill Conference in Seattle. For an industry normally ultra-savvy in the public relations arena, the oil industry's self-congratulatory conference proved to be a colossal blunder. The only thing that would have made their P.R. "coup" backfire more dramatically would have been a massive spill in Puget Sound during the keynote address.

As it was, the invited keynote speaker, actor Ted Danson (who is also president of American Oceans Campaign) compared the effects of the Valdez spill to rape; environmentalists lambasted the industry for lobbying against a state law that could prevent future spills; activists took to the sea to upstage a waterfront demo of the industry's latest clean-up gizmos; and news reports of the ongoing fiasco of the New Carissa continued to wash up.

The oil barons couldn't seem to get political support from anyone. Vice President Al Gore, who was supposed to be the conference's closing speaker, backed out at the last minute. Even Senator Slade Gorton, long considered the Darth Vader of the environmental movement, took part in the drubbing, vowing to block the proposed merger between Exxon and Mobil until Exxon pays out the $5.2 billion it owes to the fishermen and natives of Prince William Sound.On Tuesday, oil executives from Nigeria, Vietnam, Brazil, and Kuwait boarded the WC Park Responder at Pier 66 to watch spill response companies hawk their wares. A Coast Guard officer promoted each approaching "vessel of opportunity," pointing out the latest booms, skimmers, "sludge-master reciprocating pumps," and "patented cleaning devices."

On the other side of the fence, Dune Lankard and his companions pulled on orange neoprene suits and prepared to board rubber rafts for a counter-demo. Lankard is an Eyak native who fishes salmon and herring in Prince William Sound. He came down to Seattle as part of the Alaska Truth Squad, a group of natives, fishers, scientists, and environmentalists determined to counter the lies of the oil industry--and to remind people that an oil spill could happen here if oil companies aren't forced to take precautions.

"This should be the Oil Spill Prevention Conference," said Lankard. "Once it spills, it's too late, the damage is done. The ecosystem in Prince William Sound still hasn't recovered."

Lankard and other activists rode past the oil execs several times in Greenpeace rafts, calling for spill prevention measures like double-hulled tankers and tug escorts. The reaction was mixed. The foreigners seemed baffled at the uninvited people in the low-tech vessels, and the Americans--the ones I was near anyhow--laughed at them. "Where's yer fishing rod?" called out one.

Up Pike Street, on the fourth floor of the convention center, companies such as Slickbar and Surf Cleaner, with slogans like "Honest Solutions, Honest Equipment," and "The Total Solution for Spills and Pollution," were fishing for contracts.

Meanwhile, in sparsely attended conference rooms, industry scientists, government officials, and oil executives debated techniques for working the media, identifying "stakeholders," and improving public perceptions. A panel of scientists reported that the impacts of spilled oil are not as bad as people fear. One scientist compared the effects of the wreck of the Exxon Valdez--which spilled more than 40,000 tons of crude oil, killed hundreds of thousands of sea birds and marine mammals, and devastated a regional economy--to a "really bad winter."Bad is right. As Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound points out, if you think the New Carissa was a disaster, consider this: that ship had just 400,000 gallons of oil on board; each of the 500 tankers who enter Puget Sound every year carries 300 million gallons of oil.

Fletcher and other environmentalists are trying to get tug escorts for these tankers as they follow the Straits of Juan de Fuca for 70 miles from the Pacific Ocean to Port Angeles. At stake is the ecological health of the San Juan Islands and the northern shoreline of the Olympic Peninsula, billions of dollars worth of property, and two wildlife refuges. The straits make one of the busiest marine highways in the world, and they are subject to serious fog, big currents, and bad storms.

The oil industry currently has five lobbyists in Olympia working to sink state legislation to mandate escort tugs.

By Thursday, British Petroleum executive Steve Marshall, the conference chair, looked as if he were fed up with the whole affair. In his farewell speech he denounced industry critics as extremists, and complained, "Advocacy and science don't mix... science and the media don't mix."

Dick Lessard of Exxon, who will chair the 2001 conference in Tampa, picked up the whining where Marshall left off: "The public is not aware of the dramatic improvements we've made, both in prevention and response. We need to find a better way to communicate our progress beyond our own community."

Good luck.