Transparency is the foundation of public trust

Donna Schantz
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

Public trust in our oil spill prevention and response system took many years to rebuild after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. It took a commitment to transparency, listening, and engaging stakeholders in developing and maintaining the system of safeguards for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers that we have today.

This system is now widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Strong State of Alaska statutes and regulations have supported this robust system. The lack of significant spills in Prince William Sound over the last 30 years indicates the effectiveness of industry meeting or exceeding regulatory requirements.

Trust in the system is at risk

Over the past few years, the Council has been seeing a steady erosion in regulatory oversight, staffing, funding, and coordination among many of the federal and state agencies responsible for enforcing strong laws and regulations. This alarming erosion has already started to reduce public trust in our prevention and response system.

In enacting the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Congress determined that only when local citizens are involved in oil transport will the trust develop that is necessary to change the system from confrontation to consensus, and so the Act called for creation of citizen councils. Our Council is a unique partner for industry and regulators, giving them a platform to provide information, answer questions, listen to stakeholders, and cultivate the long-term relationships that are necessary to establish public trust.

While the Council has had disagreements with industry over the years, there have been numerous examples of industry, regulators, and citizens working cooperatively and collaboratively to find solutions. The success of these collaborative processes has been founded upon the transparent sharing of technical and scientific information; stakeholders felt informed, heard, and included in the process, resulting in trust and acceptance of the results.

However, an effort is currently underway to reform current oil spill regulations and statutes, reportedly to make them less burdensome on industry. We have seen a shift in philosophy among some decision makers that the details in the oil spill prevention and response contingency plans, and the regulations that guide them, are unnecessary and distracting. However, there is a lack of clear information on what is problematic.

It is unreasonable to claim now, decades later, that existing requirements are too onerous on industry. Industry has demonstrated a commitment to the environment through safer operations, implementing new technologies, and integrating lessons learned. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System tanker operators have worked with regulators and citizens for 30 years to continuously improve the system and operate profitably. Any perceived financial burden to industry should be weighed against the devastation and enormous burden another major oil spill would place on the people, fish, wildlife, and environment of our region.

It appears that some may not fully understand or appreciate the legacy they have been entrusted to protect. Without transparency about what direction this potential regulatory reform may be going, it is difficult for those with historical knowledge, like the Council, to respond and advise.

Transparency is the antidote to mistrust

The Alaska Oil Spill Commission found that starting in 1981 there was a dramatic decline in regulatory oversight, and that decline contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. An official recommendation to the Alaska legislature after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was, “The nation and the state need strong, alert regulatory agencies fully funded to scrutinize and safeguard the shipment of oil.”

As those who experienced firsthand the devastation of the 1989 spill are retiring or are no longer with us, the Council has increasingly become a repository of the knowledge and lessons from that disaster.

We hope that any movement towards regulatory changes will include a thorough public input process with adequate time for information to be shared, reviewed, and commented on. Only through active citizen engagement and community relationship building can public trust in the oil spill prevention and response system be upheld.

The Council will do everything possible to make sure the safeguards put in place over the past 30 years are not weakened, and to protect the region’s stakeholders who would be most impacted by another catastrophic spill. The Council was created for this role, in anticipation of the time when enough of the memory of Exxon Valdez oil spill had faded such that the robust system put in place to prevent an accident like that from ever happening again begins to look overbearing and burdensome. The Council continues to raise awareness and provide reasonable and justified resistance to regulatory and statutory changes that could weaken existing protections.

Alaska’s oil spill laws and regulations opened for public review

Collage of four images showing Exxon Valdez oil from 1989, tangled oil spill boom from 1989, and a protesting fishing vessel, along with a 2019 photo of lingering oil in Prince William Sound.
This photo collage shows three scenes from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and one of Exxon Valdez oil in Prince William Sound in 2019.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently began a process to review and potentially change oil spill laws and regulations in Alaska. The department’s first step, a public scoping, opened on October 15, 2019.

The department is currently asking for input from stakeholders, the public, and industry on areas where Alaska’s oil discharge prevention and response contingency plan laws and regulations could be streamlined. In the department’s official announcement for this review process, Commissioner Jason Brune stated that “I’ve heard from many Alaskans that contingency plans are unnecessarily burdensome while lacking corresponding environmental benefits. To achieve Governor Dunleavy’s goal of being open for business, today we are beginning a fully transparent scoping process seeking the public’s input.”

The department is taking comments on all of its regulations on oil discharge prevention and contingency plans. In addition, the department is accepting comments on Alaska’s laws on oil and hazardous substance pollution control. These laws, or statutes, are the foundation of oil spill prevention and response regulations. Regulations can be changed by the agency that oversees them, however state law can only be amended by the legislature. While no specific revisions are being proposed by the department at this time, the Council sees this effort as having the potential to lead to a weakening of oil spill prevention and response requirements put in place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Once the current public scoping is complete, the department plans to review the submitted comments and then propose specific revisions to the regulations. If changes are proposed, the department will provide an opportunity for public review and comment. Public comment periods on specific changes are required to be open for a minimum of 30 days.

The specific sections under review are:

The original deadline of January 15 has been extended. Written comments must be submitted to ADEC no later than 11:59 p.m. on March 16, 2020.

The Council encourages the public to comment in support of strong regulations that protect our communities, environment, cultures, economies, and human health from oil pollution.


The Exxon Valdez oil spill taught many lessons about oil spill prevention and preparedness, such as ensuring responders are better trained ahead of time to use cleanup equipment. The strong rules that resulted from that spill mean better preparedness today.

Why Alaska has such strong rules

Strong statutes and regulations are one of the main reasons why Prince William Sound has not had a major oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster. The world-class oil spill
prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers is a direct result of post-Exxon Valdez spill laws and regulations, which were designed to protect Alaskans and our environment, as well as commercial and sport fishing, aquaculture, recreation, tourism, subsistence, and cultural interests.

These laws and regulations help prevent oil spills and ensure that there are enough trained responders and equipment in place should prevention measures fail.

Read more: The history of Alaska’s world-renowned oil spill preparedness and response system

Public statements by Commissioner Brune cause concern

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.

The recent public scoping notice issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, along with statements made by the department’s commissioner, Jason Brune, have caused concern at the Council.

Some of the commissioner’s statements were interpreted as encouraging a reduction in regulations, safeguards that could lead to a return to the complacency that led to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Full statements

References to “burdensome” regulations

Last March, the commissioner spoke to Alaska’s Resource Development Council, an organization comprised of representatives from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, timber, tourism, and fisheries industries. He told the group that he has been focusing on the word “economic” in the department’s mission: ‘Conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic, and social well-being of Alaskans.’ He specifically requested comments from members of the business group regarding which regulations they view as “overly onerous” and “unnecessary.” “We need to make sure that we hear from you what we can do to help make Alaska open for business,” Brune told them.

The commissioner spoke to the Council at two public meetings this year. At the Council’s meeting last May, he mentioned the length of the regulations for contingency plans.

“When you make things complex and you make things 49 pages, for regs [regulations] for a c-plan [contingency plan], that influences your investment climate,” he said.

These regulations cover different response planning standards for crude tankers, non-crude tankers and barges, crude oil terminals, non-crude terminals, oil and gas exploration facilities, production facilities, and pipelines.

“We’re going to look at them [the regulations] and we’re going to determine whether it’s — some things that are in there are just outdated, some things are unnecessary, they’re not protecting human health and the environment,” also told the Council in May.

“Some of the things that have been added to c-plans over the years, as I said, I think that the c-plans have gotten — and I know a lot of you disagree with me on this — but they’ve gotten overly onerous and too large to the point that they’re almost unusable documents,” the commissioner said in September.

Since 1992, the department has revised these regulations nine times to streamline the process and make creating the documents less onerous.

Lack of transparency

The Council has asked for examples of regulations that have been suggested for reform but has not received any specifics.

“Some of the examples [of recommended changes] that have been given — I mean, I’m — I can’t come up with any right now but, I mean, some of the regs that we put forward for potential changes, I don’t have that list in front of me but did come from input that we received in those processes,” told the Council in May.

“We have identified the list of regs that we think can be improved. The State of Alaska — the different departments were asked to do that by the Governor. We put a list of about a hundred came forward from the different agencies around — I think 35 or 40 of them came from DEC.”

At the Council’s meeting in September, members showed appreciation that the commissioner was open to conversations, however concerns remained.

“I’ve heard a lot of folks say they want huge changes,” the commissioner told the Council in September.

Council calls on the commissioner to uphold commitment to protect Alaska

However, at the May meeting, the commissioner also made statements that he is committed to the protection of Alaska’s environment.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that the economy of Alaska is protected and economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. Those two things we’ve proven can co-exist. We’ve also proven in 1989 that you can really screw things up. So we need to make sure we’re doing it right,” the commissioner told the Council last May.

The Council called on the commissioner to uphold this commitment to protect Alaska’s environment during upcoming reviews of regulations.

Statements made by ADEC Commissioner Jason Brune of concern to the Council:

March 21, 2019: 

May 2019: 

September 2019: 

News release: Board issues position on safeguarding Alaska’s oil spill prevention and response standards

Photo of the 2019-2020 Council Board of Directors

Input from public critical to protect Alaska coastlines and communities

The Council voted on October 29, 2019, to pass a resolution stating strong opposition to any legislative or regulatory changes that erode oil spill prevention and response standards, increase the risk of a catastrophic spill, or demonstrate a return of the complacency on the part of oil the industry and regulators that Congress determined to be a primary cause of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The resolution was prompted by a public scoping process recently opened by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The department is soliciting input from stakeholders, the public, and industry on areas where Alaska oil spill regulations (18 AAC 75, Article 4) and Alaska State Statute 46.04 (AS 46.04), Oil and Hazardous Substance Pollution Control, could be streamlined.

The Council is concerned about the lack of specificity and transparency of the regulatory reform effort. The Council recommends that the State of Alaska halt the current public scoping process until more information is provided to the public as to the driving factors that led to this regulatory and statutory reform initiative. It also strongly recommends that Alaskans interested in maintaining prevention and response standards designed to protect the state’s environment, people and economy from catastrophic oil spills contact the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to register their views regarding any weakening of existing safeguards.

“Strong statutes and regulations are a big part of why Alaska has not had a major oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council. “The world-class oil spill prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers is a direct result of post-Exxon Valdez spill laws and regulations designed to protect Alaskans and our environment, as well as commercial and sport fishing, aquaculture, recreation, tourism, subsistence and cultural interests. It is unreasonable for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to claim now, after 30 profitable years of industry compliance, that the requirements are too onerous.”

AS 46.04, the basis for oil spill regulations, contains many key laws designed to prevent oil spills and ensure that there are enough trained responders and equipment in place should prevention measures fail. For instance, AS 46.04 includes Alaska’s Oil Spill Response Planning Standard (RPS). The RPS was created after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill by a team of oil industry experts, attorneys, state employees, and spill response specialists as a direct result of the massive failure of the spill response system at that time.

The oil spill response framework – established in AS 46.04 and enhanced over time – is ultimately the product of years of hard work, critical thinking and creative problem-solving by a group of experienced professionals and passionate stakeholders who were impacted in some way by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The RPS establishes a foundation that continues to distinguish Alaska, and particularly Prince William Sound, as having a world-class prevention, preparedness and response system.

Robert Archibald, board president for the Council stated, “Protecting our communities and the environment is not burdensome, it is the cost of doing business in Alaska. Reducing any perceived burden to industry by rolling back or eliminating proven oil spill prevention and response requirements transfers the risk and burden of another oil spill to the communities, citizens and environment they were designed to protect. This initiative disregards the efforts of hundreds of Alaskans who worked tirelessly on improving regulatory requirements after the Exxon Valdez oil spill to ensure that our state would never again suffer a similar environmental disaster.”

Public input is needed to maintain the proven and effective prevention and response system in place in Alaska. After the public scoping, ADEC will review the input received and put forth any potential changes, followed by a formal public comment period for those proposed change. There is a 30-day minimum requirement for all state public comment periods.

During the current scoping period, the council encourages the public to provide input strongly opposing any legislative or regulatory changes that would erode oil spill prevention and response standards. Also, we encourage the public to insist on more than the required minimum 30-day public comment period for any proposed revisions put forth by ADEC. Adequate time must be provided to analyze proposed changes and gather input from all interested public stakeholders. This is essential to make sure proposed changes do not weaken important oil spill prevention and response measures that many people fought so hard to implement after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Public input during the scoping process can be submitted through January 15, 2020: Submit comments on Alaska oil spill regulations (18 AAC 75, Article 4) and Alaska State Statute 46.04 (AS 46.04)

Public Input Needed On ADEC’s Oil Spill Contingency Plan Regulation Reform Initiative | November 4, 2019 | File size: 0.2 MB | Author: PWSRCAC

Press and media inquiries, please contact Brooke Taylor: 907.277.7222 or by email.

More information: Public input needed to safeguard state protections

PDF of new release: Prince William Sound RCAC board issues position on safeguarding Alaska’s oil spill prevention and response standards


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