By President Robert Archibald (City of Homer) and Executive Director Donna Schantz
It will surprise no one to learn the past year has been exceptionally challenging for the Council. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes and constant uncertainty. Safety precautions required us to look for new ways to monitor drills and adapt projects. While the Council has moved projects forward in our many areas of responsibility and recognizes new realities the pandemic presents, we remain concerned with what we view as a steady deterioration of federal and state oil spill prevention, response, oversight, and enforcement capabilities that continues in Prince William Sound.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.