From the Executive Director: Value of regional stakeholder input process deserves to be preserved

Potential changes to the Regional Stakeholders Committee, a lesson learned during Exxon Valdez, on the horizon

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

Executive Director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council

It’s time to publicly speak out about the importance of the Regional Stakeholders Committee process and its value in oil spill response.

The Regional Stakeholders Committee concept is a structured way to involve and engage those who may be affected in a spill response. The concept is a best practice for Alaska and for the entire United States.

The practice of engaging with stakeholders was one of the fundamental lessons learned during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is quite simply good public response policy.

That could change if revisions proposed to the state wide oil spill response plan are adopted. Those proposed changes abolish the current stakeholder committee structure and replace it with two newly named groups; one comprised of tribal and local governments and other affected stakeholders. The new process would mean marginally less access to, and significantly less information from, the federal response coordinators to both groups than is currently provided to the stakeholder committee.

Why would such changes be proposed?

According to the lead state and federal responders for the Kulluk grounding incident on Kodiak in January 2013, there were some significant frustrations with the committee process in that incident. National and international public and media interest in the incident was immediate and substantial. Senior state and federal responders have explained that this intense interest meant this daily access to the response leaders was problematic. As a result, there has been a call to re-think what the value of a regional stakeholders committee is and perhaps how it is managed.

Before changing a process that has historically worked well for Alaskans, it is important to re-visit what the committee is and perhaps also what it is not.

The stakeholder committee is not part of the Unified Command, which is the group that collectively directs spill response activities and is comprised of the person or company responsible for the incident, together with the lead federal and state spill responders. The committee does not get a vote in deciding operational objectives or managing the incident. Under current policy, regional stakeholders are simply afforded daily access to the Unified Command to voice their concerns, offer advice, local expertise, assistance, and to periodically get updated on the key concerns and incident response objectives.

The committee was not designed to be a back-door route to the Unified Command for the media, for incident response vendors, or for national or international organizations who might be inclined to use a particular Alaska incident to advance their own agenda.

The committee meets a unique need and a long standing commitment from our state officials by connecting local stakeholder communities to the incident managers. As such, it needs to be managed and supported jointly by the federal, state, and local response coordinators. These people all have ties to the local region and can most appropriately determine which stakeholder groups should be included in the committee for a given incident. They can manage and make any tough calls needed to exclude inappropriate participation.

Sometimes which entities need to be involved in the regional stakeholder’s committee process is obvious. For example, under current state and regional response policy, the council is named as a participant for incidents involving tankers and the Alyeska oil terminal. Other times, committee participation is not so cut and dried.

Following the frustrations of the regional stakeholder’s committee process in the Kulluk response, perhaps the management of that committee process simply needs to be refined and its purpose and participation better defined.

Another issue, closely related to these proposed changes is a mandate for state and federal responders to conduct outreach and consult with federally recognized tribes in a real and meaningful way. This mandate led to the creation of the tribal and local government sub group within the proposal. It is not understood how pulling these groups out of the stakeholder committee will enhance this consultation.

To avoid confusion, it is important to note the stakeholder committee process is neither the same as the tribal consultation process, nor does the committee process exactly match the response coordinators objective of keeping the general public informed about the incident response. The committee connects all affected stakeholder communities to the incident management team, in real time, during the response, with a two way communication process for the benefit of both parties.

The committee process is a best practice

As we go forward with updates to the state wide and regional oil spill contingency plans, it is important to remember that engaging the regional stakeholders in a spill response in an organized and well defined way is a best practice for Alaska and for the entire United States.

In the 2010 Gulf spill, without a comparable regional stakeholder engagement process, frustrations over local concerns not being addressed, or being under-acknowledged occasionally boiled over and resulted in accusations aimed at the Unified Command getting aired on national television.

In Alaska, many of the oil tanker operating companies have made significant investments and highly commendable commitments to constructively engage regional stakeholders in their preparatory spill response exercises over the past decades since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We at the council appreciate that commitment and would like to ensure there is no reduction in stakeholder involvement or elimination of the Regional Stakeholders Committee role in the incident response plans for Alaska.

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