Schantz: Safe transportation of oil requires local knowledge

Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz, Executive Director

Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

Since 2016, there has been an increase in foreign flagged tankers loading Alaska North Slope crude oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal, or VMT. While foreign flagged ships are crewed by licensed and professional mariners, these vessels may introduce increased risk of an accident or oil spill due to the lack of familiarity with the unique environmental conditions or prevention and response systems in our region.

A lack of familiarity with the operating environment appears to have been the cause of an incident in the Gulf of Alaska on April 14 with the foreign flagged tanker, Stena Suede. This unladen vessel arrived ahead of its estimated time to load oil at the VMT, with other tankers scheduled ahead of it.

Instead of the customary response in this situation – picking up a marine pilot at the Bligh Reef station and proceeding to the only designated safe anchorage for large vessels in our region at Knowles Head – the Stena Suede decided to hold off in the Gulf of Alaska. When the winds started to pick up, the crew dropped anchor about 20 miles outside of Hinchinbrook Entrance. Subsequently, they were unable to pull up the anchor due to damaged equipment and the vessel proceeded to drag anchor for more than 24 hours, losing some mooring equipment as well. Once the crew made repairs, they proceeded to the VMT, loaded oil, and left without any further issues.

Image shows the path of the Stena Suede as it dragged its anchor in the Gulf of Alaska.
Path of the Stena Suede at anchor. View full size image.

Foreign flagged tankers, such as the Stena Suede, are vetted prior to taking on oil at the VMT and provided with a number of documents in advance of sailing, including contingency plans, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic system manual, the vessel escort and response plan, and more – over 800 pages in total. While these important documents describe the operating environment and regulatory requirements, it is unrealistic to expect crew members to digest this large amount of material, discern the most relevant pieces, and retain all of the essential safety measures. Additionally, there is commonly understood local knowledge that is not necessarily written down in these plans or perhaps not in a way that highlights their importance.

Licensed marine pilots, such as those stationed at Bligh Reef, are highly trained experts in ship navigation and possess extensive knowledge of the local waterways, including environmental conditions specific to that area. Federal law requires a marine pilot be on board vessels, such as crude oil tankers, when entering bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the U.S. For the ports and waterways of southwest Alaska, including Prince William Sound, the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, or SWAPA, provides these services. Their role is to guide ships safely through confined waters, working to ensure the protection of shipping and the marine environment, as well as life and property.

Anchoring outside of ports is common practice around the world. The Stena Suede was in compliance with all applicable regulations as it was outside of state and federal jurisdiction with no requirement for a local marine pilot to be on board at that time. Inadequate communication between the ship and those familiar with the region may have prevented the crew from being warned against setting anchor in the Gulf.

It is the opinion of many marine operators in our region that there is no safe anchorage in the Gulf of Alaska. A letter dated April 22, 2021, from SWAPA to the U.S. Coast Guard pointed out that it is inadvisable to anchor in open waters in the Gulf given the unpredictable environmental conditions which may be encountered at any time of year.

The Stena Suede incident fortunately did not result in an accident or oil spill, but it put a spotlight on a potential weak link in the robust safety systems of our region. SWAPA has clarified their guidance for anchoring large seagoing vessels and plans to recommend updates to NOAA’s Alaska Coast Pilot. Industry representatives have also said they are looking at ways to improve the process of conveying important regional safety information to foreign flagged vessels. PWSRCAC plans to monitor these developments and provide input. We must all remain vigilant and be willing to use lessons learned to continuously improve our regional safety systems designed to prevent oil spills.

 

From the executive director: Maintaining Alaska’s High Standards in Spill Prevention and Response

Donna Schantz
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

Prince William Sound is home to one of the best and most effective oil spill prevention and response systems in the world.

This system was developed over the past 30 years through a partnership between the oil industry, federal and state regulators, legislators, and citizen stakeholders. This system is possible because Alaskans were dedicated to working together to ensure a spill like the Exxon Valdez never happens again.

Unfortunately, we have also seen a steady, on-going, and alarming deterioration of federal and state oil spill prevention, response, oversight, and enforcement capabilities in Prince William Sound.

A variety of factors contributed to this situation: state and federal regulation and enforcement rollbacks, budget and staff reductions at oversight agencies, COVID-19, the low price of oil, reduced oil consumption, and lower throughput in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).

Collectively, these issues could substantially increase the risk of an oil spill in Alaska.

“Burdensome” state regulations

This winter, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation solicited input from stakeholders, the public, and industry on its laws and regulations governing oil spill prevention and response. Reportedly, this stemmed from industry comments that such regulations are too burdensome. The Council submitted extensive comments and put together resources to support other members of the public who wished to give informed input.

The department also announced they would largely suspend oversight and enforcement activities during the current public health emergency.

In addition, funding for Alaska’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response, as well as to respond to an oil spill, is currently unsustainable.

Sale of BP’s Alaska Assets

In August, BP announced a plan to sell its Alaska assets to Hilcorp and their wholly owned subsidiary Harvest Alaska LLC. This sale would transfer the largest percentage of ownership of Alyeska to Hilcorp/Harvest, a company that according to state agencies has a track record of reducing costs. This could be very problematic if those reductions lead to further diminishment of safety, prevention, and response readiness.

Reducing budgets increases risk

Perhaps the most critical issue is the recent slump in oil prices. The low global demand for oil and other pandemic-related impacts, combined with the declining trend in TAPS throughput, are all added stressors to the industry’s budget.

As a result, Alyeska has tightened its belt and reduced staff in recent years. This could mean reduced accountability and supervision, reduced maintenance of aging infrastructure, reduced training, and increased workloads. These and numerous other factors mean elevated risk and increased chances of an accident.

A cautionary tale

In 1990, the U.S. Congress specifically identified complacency as a key factor in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Thirty years later, while the entire world is distracted with COVID-19 and the resulting economic slump, the system is again threatened by complacency, compounded further by budgetary constraints and efforts to reduce costs.

The Council and our mission are more important than ever. Our vigilance is needed to prevent backsliding that could cause major oil spill. Such a disaster would be devastating for Alaskans, for our livelihoods, for fish and wildlife, and for the marine and terrestrial environment.

The Council hires expert contractors to ensure that sound technical advice is provided to regulators and industry in order to protect Prince William Sound and its downstream communities. We raise these concerns so that sensible and effective actions can be taken. Those with the most to lose from oil pollution must have a voice in the decisions that put their livelihoods and communities at risk. Through perseverance, hard work, and strengthening of partnerships between citizens, industry, and federal and state regulators, the systems put in place to prevent another major oil spill can be maintained and improved upon.

From the executive director: EPA’s temporary policy limits inspections and enforcement actions

Donna Schantz
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a temporary policy on how to handle enforcement and compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic. An April letter clarified that the policy was not intended to absolve companies of responsibility, but to allow flexibility for regulators to adapt to the unique situations presented by the pandemic.

The EPA published remarks from public officials and stakeholders in support of the temporary policy, including remarks from Jason Brune, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC. The commissioner’s remarks are concerning, especially the reference to regulatory bodies, including ADEC and other state and federal agencies, seeking out “gotcha” moments in the course of their duty to enforce safety requirements.

In an April 24 letter to ADEC, the Council requested a commitment that all reasonable actions to prevent accidents from occurring would be taken. The Council also requested that any temporary policies such as this one be lifted as soon as the emergency declaration has ended.

Inspections are not ‘gotcha’ moments

The Council does not believe that regulatory oversight, including monitoring, inspecting, and reporting on industry operations, are punitive ‘gotcha’ moments. We also do not think that regulatory bodies seek to unnecessarily penalize industry during normal circumstances, let alone during an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quote from Jason Brune: “The regulated community needs certainty that it will not fall prey to punitive ‘gotcha’ moments during this pandemic. Limiting inspections at this time is prudent as we do not want staff to be unintentional vectors for the virus to rural parts of our state that are ill-prepared to treat sick patients.”
Source: What They Are Saying: Public Officials and Stakeholders Voice Support for EPA’s Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic

Given the extreme stresses resulting from this crisis, careful consideration should be given to how issues are characterized. The Council recognizes that regulators’ discretion is necessary during these unprecedented times, however regulatory enforcement must continue, as clarified by the EPA in April.

As state and federal agencies are stretched to their maximum capabilities, the Council’s role becomes increasingly more important. These new limits on inspections are added to the many stressors already impacting the system in Prince William  Sound, such as complications related to the pandemic, the recent oil spill from the Valdez Marine Terminal, the low price of oil, and reduced budgets and staffing levels, all of which could result in diminished safeguards for oil spill prevention and response. The suggestion that the department is limiting inspections can lead to complacency for both industry and regulatory agencies, transferring the risk to the public, and increasing the possibility of a major oil spill.

The safety of personnel must be the first priority. However, regulatory agencies cannot back off from their oil spill prevention responsibilities at this critical time in Alaska’s history.

Link to ADEC guidance: COVID-19 caused Non-Compliance Concerns, No Action Assurance Memorandum

 

Transparency is the foundation of public trust

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.

Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

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.

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