New oil escort tugs get poor review at citizens’ council

  • A slide from a presentation to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council board of directors on Jan. 19 showed one of the design flaws identified by a third-party firm hired to evaluate new escort and support tugs now being built by Edison Chouest Offshore to handle oil tankers for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. (Slide/Courtesy/Robert Allan Ltd.)

A vessel design firm hired by a Prince William Sound environmental watchdog group is very skeptical of the capability of tugs being built to escort oil tankers out of Valdez.

Marine engineer Robert Allan told members of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council board of directors on Jan. 19 that his company found “fairly significant deficiencies” in the designs of two classes of tugs that Edison Chouest Offshore plans to use in the sound starting next year.

Allan is executive chairman of the Vancouver-based naval architecture and marine engineering firm Robert Allan Ltd., which was founded by his grandfather and carries the family name.

Last June, Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore announced it had won the 10-year contract from Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. for Prince William Sound ship escort and response vessel system, or SERVS.

Alyeska operates the Valdez marine oil terminal as part of its duties overseeing the Trans-Alaska pipeline system, or TAPS.

At the time, Edison Chouest Alaska leaders said the company would utilize its in-house shipbuilding capacity to build five new escort tugs and four smaller support tugs to fulfill the SERVS obligations.

The escort tugs will generally usher tankers through the larger sound while the support tugs will be used primarily in the confined waters of the Valdez narrows and for tanker docking.

The small fleet of new tugs is currently under construction at four shipyards in Louisiana and Mississippi, three of which are owned by Edison Chouest, according to Alyeska SERVS Operations Manager Mike Day. They were designed by Damen Shipyards Group, a Dutch company.

Early in his presentation to the council board Allan acknowledged his company is a regular competitor of Damen and that his opinions could be construed as “a sort of petty jealously or whatever, but I would like to assure the room that that is absolutely not the case,” he said. “We’ve looked at this as professional engineers.”

Edison Chouest is scheduled to take over SERVS operations in July 2018 from an Alaska wing of Florida-based Crowley Maritime Corp., which has provided tanker docking services in Valdez since the startup of the pipeline in 1977.

It added the Prince William Sound escort and spill response duties to its work in 1990, a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Since then, Crowley has executed the SERVS contract virtually without issue.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council was established at the behest of a group of Cordova fisherman shortly after the Exxon Valdez spill as a means to improve communication between the public and Alyeska. The 1990 federal Oil Pollution Act mandated the formation of citizens’ councils in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

The council is primarily funded by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which is owned by the three major North Slope producers.

Based on the information available, Allan said he could foresee multiple problems stemming from the basic hull designs of the tugs as well as an apparent lack of amenities and equipment to handle cold weather and onboard snow and ice.

“We don’t see enough detail dealing with the whole issue of working in the Alaskan climate and the meta-ocean conditions these boats are going to encounter,” Allan said.

Overall, he said both designs also lack necessary cold-weather features such as heating for exposed deck areas, piping and rope storage lockers along with de-icing for window wipers.

His company was able to review drawings and specification sheets for both classes of tugs along with other vessel description, performance and simulation reports, but not all of the detailed design information available, according to Allan.

Right away he said he was struck by the low expectations for Bollard pull — the total force a tug can exert — for both the escort and support tug designs given the power of the engines and overall size of the tugs.

The Bollard pull projection for both vessel classes is about 15 percent less than what he would anticipate, Allan said, noting that the tugs should still meet duty requirements but could strain winches, tow fittings and other equipment if the power is underestimated.

“It’s not a trivial issue and I just don’t understand why the predicted Bollard pull for this much horsepower is as low as it is,” Allan told the board.

The pull for the 140-foot escort tugs with 12,300 horsepower is approximately 150 tons; for the 102-foot support tugs with about 6,000 horsepower Damen estimates the Bollard pull to be 72 tons.

Conversely, the tugs could be burning more fuel than necessary if the pull projections are accurate, he added.

An apparent decision to rely on computer simulations to determine the seakeeping ability of the escort tugs — how they will fare in various wave conditions — also concerns Allan.

He said top-end performance calculations, based on the information his company was provided, had “only been performed for flat calm conditions, so we don’t know how this performance will deter in weather, which is quite honestly a difficult thing to prove analytically. It can be done through model testing, however.”

Large vessel designers often build downsized scale models of new hull designs that are tested in pools as a way of replicating sea conditions the vessel is likely to face.

A report generated from computer simulations determined the escort tugs capable of handling 4.5-meter seas at speeds of 1 knot, but did not test the design performance in rough water at speeds up to 10 knots, which the tugs will often be operating at, an omission Allan said he finds “worrying.”

Additionally, “four-and-a-half meters is not sufficiently high to address seakeeping, particularly for the sentinel tug applications (where Prince William Sound meets the Gulf of Alaska) so I’m very, very skeptical about the seakeeping predictions in particular,” Allan said.

Edison Chouest Alaska leaders did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Other potential issues with the escort tug design include a very large skeg that could impact maneuverability at low speeds and blunt bow that might cause the tugs to lose speed in large waves, he commented.

Allan suggested adding bow thrusters to add agility to the escort tugs at low speeds and in tight quarters.

He said further that a three-foot step down to the front deck of the escort tugs, meant to lower the towing point and improve indirect towing performance, “creates a potential swimming pool in the foredeck.”

“If this ship is in heavy seas and sticks its nose into one wave — now you’ve got a meter deep pool of water in the foredeck which has got to find its way out through a series of freeing ports that may well be blocked with snow or ice and then the tug has to rise up to meet the next wave and we’ve added lord know how many tons of water to the foredeck,” Allan described. “I see this as a pretty significant fundamental design problem and it’s not easy to overcome without significantly reducing the indirect towing capabilities of the boat.”

On the support tugs, he said the vessels could benefit from variable pitch propellers when in close quarters with oil tankers. The fixed propellers in the plans could cause the tugs engines to stall if the propellers are impacted by prop wash from a tanker, according to Allan.

Alyeska SERVS Director Andres Morales said he believes some of Allan’s conclusions are due to a lack of information but said Alyeska “is taking this information to heart” and is in contact with Edison Chouest and Damen regarding the report.

“This is a third party, cold eye review from a reputable naval architect and saying, ‘hey, these are concerns we need to look at’ even if I think I know the answer; I really need to go back and verify,” Morales said to the council.

The council directors questioned Allan but mostly withheld comments regarding his report during the meeting. Director Amanda Bauer suggested the board digest the tug report and take time to draft a formal response.

Representatives from BP and Alaska Tanker Co., an Oregon-based company that operates four tankers for BP’s Alaska oil, generally reiterated Morales’ sentiment, saying Allan raises important questions but adding many of his concerns likely could be alleviated with more information.

The selection of Edison Chouest over Crowley became a campaign issue last fall in the U.S. House race, with Democrat Steve Lindbeck alleging Rep. Don Young didn’t do anything to keep the contract in Crowley’s hands because he has received large contributions from Edison Chouest.

Critics at the time pointed to Edison Chouest’s role in service to Shell in 2012 when the drill rig Kulluk was lost while under tow during a December storm in the Gulf of Alaska and grounded off Kodiak.

A Coast Guard investigation laid most of the blame for the incident on Shell for directing Edison Chouest to execute a badly-planned, single-line tow across the Gulf in bad weather, but the findings also stated that design flaws with the newly-built tow vessel Aiviq allowed seawater to enter the fuel supply through poorly-designed vents.

The Aiviq, custom built by Edison Chouest for its contract with Shell, lost power to all four engines and all the fuel injectors had to be replaced at sea during the storm after being flown from sources across the Lower 48 to Alaska.

The Crowley tug Alert responded to the call for aid from the Coast Guard when the Kulluk was adrift, securing a line and getting the rig under tow before eventually being directed to let it loose as the two vessels were being pushed closer to shore.

In its “commendable acts” section of the Kulluk report, the Coast Guard praised the crew of the Alert for their “skill and resourcefulness” in “preventing a more dire consequence for the grounding of the [Kulluk].”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
02/20/2017 - 12:25pm