By Donna Schantz
The oil spill prevention and response system created for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is one of the best in the world. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System tanker operators have worked with regulators and citizens to continuously improve the system over the years. Industry safety records, coupled with the lack of significant spills in the past 30 years, point to the success of industry working within the current system. Credit is also due to the foresight of Congress for enacting the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which included the creation of the citizen councils, and to the State of Alaska for implementing strong statutes and regulations. The Joint Pipeline Office was created in 1990 to coordinate efforts of the 13 different state and federal regulatory agencies with oversight responsibilities at the Valdez Marine Terminal.
One only needs to compare the prevention and response capabilities prior to 1989 to what is in place today to recognize the vast improvements that have been made. 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 notion that safety can be ensured in the shipping industry through self-regulation has proved false and should be abandoned as a premise for policy. Alert regulatory agencies, subject to continuous public oversight, are needed to enforce laws governing the safe shipment of oil.”
– Alaska Oil Spill Commission Report (1990) The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez: Implications for Safe Transportation of Oil.
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 the strong laws and regulations. Agency budgets have been reduced, and personnel are being tasked with doing more with fewer resources. The Council wants to do everything possible to make sure the safeguards put in place over the past 30 years are not weakened.
Many of the people who worked so hard after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to make sure strong requirements were enacted are no longer with us or involved in the process. With the passage of time, we are losing historical knowledge and the lessons learned from those who experienced firsthand the devastation of the spill and who understood the importance of implementing strong requirements to make sure past mistakes are not repeated.
With this loss of understanding there is 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. Some of the details in the contingency plans have already been weakened or removed, and an effort to reform current oil spill regulations to make them less burdensome on industry is underway. It appears that some may not fully understand or appreciate the legacy they have been entrusted to protect.
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Alaska legislature created the Alaska Oil Spill Commission to study the event and propose changes that would minimize chances for recurrence of a similar disaster. One of their recommendations was that, “The nation and the state need strong, alert regulatory agencies fully funded to scrutinize and safeguard the shipment of oil.” The Commission found that starting in 1981 there was a dramatic decline in regulatory oversight that contributed to the spill.
Industry has been able to meet or exceed current regulatory requirements and has demonstrated a commitment to the environment through safer operations. New technologies and improvements based on lessons learned have been added to the system in Prince William Sound to further enhance preparedness. Most of these reforms are costly, yet it is unreasonable to claim now, decades later, that existing requirements are too onerous on industry. 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.
The State of Alaska should take pride in the world-class oil spill prevention and response system created for crude oil storage and transportation in Prince William Sound. Maintaining this high level of vigilance is of paramount importance to keeping oil transportation safe. The Council continues to raise awareness and provide reasonable and justified resistance to changes that could weaken existing protections to avoid sliding back into complacency.
To find out more about the history and legislative intent of Alaska’s strong standards, read the Council’s August 2018 report: