LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

South of Houston, crews are trying to clean up an oil spill after a barge and ship collided. Wildlife advocates are concerned because this is the peak of the shore bird migration season. Twenty-five years ago this week images of oil-soaked wildlife were all over the news. Back then the focus was Alaska and Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran into a reef and began spilling millions of gallons of crude oil. Today, tanker technology has improved, but as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, companies also are drilling in much riskier environments.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Just about all the oil that's easy to drill for is gone. Or it's controlled by state-owned companies in places like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. That leaves private corporations with the oil in hard-to-reach places: on the ocean floor or locked in shale a mile underground.

RICHARD KEIL: The days of being able to easily access resources are largely behind us.

BRADY: ExxonMobil spokesman Richard Keil says his company takes these more challenging environments very seriously. In 2006, ExxonMobil had spent $187 million drilling a deep water well. It looked like a rich find with lots of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. But there were indications that continuing to drill the well might not be safe.

KEIL: So, in spite of having spent nearly $200 million on this project, it was one we turned our back on and walked away from. We took a lot of heat from our shareholders at the time, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

BRADY: That approach is difficult to maintain, especially if it's been a long time since a company last had an accident.

NANCY KINNER: Sometimes we get a little cocky about how good things are going and then think, oh no, we don't have to worry, we've got this one nailed. And then sometimes we don't.

BRADY: That's Nancy Kinner, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire. She says the oil industry has improved safety and spill clean-up response. But there's also a lot more drilling going on now.

KINNER: On the one hand, we now have better technology to minimize the risk, but we have more activity occurring.

BRADY: Kinner says riskier work combined with more drilling increases the risk of accidents. That's one reason the industry is spending more than a billion dollars on the Marine Well Containment Company. It's meant to respond quickly to well blowouts. CEO Marty Massey showed off some of its equipment outside Houston a few years back.

MARTY MASSEY: Well, it's a big hunk of iron, as you can see.

BRADY: He's describing a hundred-ton capping stack that's placed over an out-of-control well and diverts the leaking oil to tankers above. It's similar to the device that brought BP's gusher in the Gulf of Mexico under control in 2010. That one had to be built from scratch while the well was still leaking. But this one is ready to deploy, says Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

BRIAN SALERNO: That technology existed prior to the Gulf oil spill but it was never really a requirement for deep water operations. It is now.

BRADY: Salerno has another plan to improve safety. He's taking cues from airlines, which have improved their record dramatically in recent decades. He wants to collect data about near-misses, the accidents that almost happened.

SALERNO: There's a great body of knowledge that we could potentially obtain if we were able to capture near-miss - what almost went wrong and what prevented it from going wrong.

BRADY: As the oil industry ventures into riskier territory, Salerno says a new safety culture is needed to limit the number of catastrophic accidents in the future. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: It's NPR News.

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