The Alaskan Explorer had sailed to a Washington refinery, but was forced to return to Alaska with 300,000 barrels because the onshore storage tanks were too full to accept the oil, Anil Mathur, CEO of the Alaska Tanker Co., which owns the ship, confirmed last week.
"Not the normal course of business," said John Kotula, one of the few outsiders privy to the incident because of his position as manager of the state of Alaska's environmental office in Valdez.
The tanker's inability to unload its oil underlines a startling reality: Crude oil supplies in the United States have been at historic highs for two years, while Americans are using less of its most important product - gasoline. The Gulf Coast is particularly glutted with crude, due in part to a pipeline bottleneck. But federal statistics show another recent development: West Coast refineries are decreasing their production as the domestic demand for gasoline shrinks.
"If there is so much crude oil around, why is the price of gasoline so high? Why is the price of heating oil so high?" asked Dan Lawn, an environmental consultant who was in the same job as Kotula for decades before he retired in 2005.
Government statistics show that gasoline isn't selling the way it used to, and on any given day, crude oil could be backed up in storage tanks from Valdez to San Francisco Bay to Long Beach.
"Valdez inventories are pretty high. Our inventories are high. Nobody is taking much crude on the West Coast," said Kidd.
So why aren't gasoline prices pushed down by the forces of supply and demand?
"You've keyed into an interesting puzzle, a paradox," said Richard Newell, professor of energy and environmental economics at Duke University and until last year the head of the federal Energy Information Administration, which tracks statistics generated by the oil industry.
Well why doesn't somebody ask the GOP's leading "expert" on energy in America, Sarah Palin? Surely SHE could explain this conundrum to the American people.