COMMENTARY: Ballot Measure 1 threatens TAPS operations and the environment
The Stand for Salmon movement promises “vital infrastructure will still move forward” in the event of its passage. In reality, the initiative becoming law would bring a standstill to actions that protect the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System today, while putting fish habitat around it in more jeopardy.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Company operates TAPS, a vital piece of Alaska’s economic engine, and maintains its 800-mile route across more than 700 fish streams from the North Slope to Valdez. We are committed to operational excellence, long-term TAPS reliability, and the health of its surrounding environment.
I know our personnel, almost all Alaskans, along with our Alaska-based industry partners, Tribal organizations, and state and federal agencies that regulate our work, share Ballot Measure 1’s supporters’ appreciation for Alaska’s special waterways and vibrant marine life. But that’s where common ground ends.
Many states have lost salmon species or declared them endangered due to overfishing and blocked migration routes. Not so in Alaska, and certainly not along TAPS. We regularly clear, repair, and modify streams to maintain fish passage and prevent erosion.
TAPS workers act to deliver system and environmental sustainability, not simply suppress infrastructure threats. After over 40 years of TAPS operations, our Environment, Right of Way and Baseline teams are experts in monitoring and inspecting hundreds of waterways and dozens more that connect to them along TAPS.
Many hold master’s degrees in fisheries, marine biology, wildlife biology, environmental science and engineering. All take great pride in their role protecting the environment; if they don’t, they don’t work here. They know these waters, and the more than 30 fish species inhabiting them, from daily and annual surveillance and from constantly anticipating and responding to the forces of nature and Alaska’s often harsh and unpredictable weather.
TAPS is already heavily regulated; we comply with requirements of more than 20 state and federal agencies. Since 2000, Alyeska has received more than 700 individual permits for routine maintenance activities, new installations, and projects along waterways to safeguard pipeline integrity and protect the environment. We hold 80 to 90 active annual permits for work in fish habitat areas.
The fish habitat initiative puts at risk timely permitting and conduct of our actions. With rigid new agency review requirements and permitting criteria, and a wide-open appeals process, the initiative would complicate and delay inspection and certain maintenance activities, and create uncertainty about what is considered minor routine maintenance and grandfathered projects.
Simple but important projects would face convoluted if not unpassable hurdles. And when we confront natural disasters, such as floods, fires and earthquakes, there’s no time to waste.
Every spring, the Sagavanirktok River — better known as the Sag River — floods along the Dalton Highway and TAPS right of way for long stretches. Sometimes the flooding is annoying. Sometimes it’s troublesome. In spring 2015, it was disastrous.
By spring’s arrival, ice buildup was 12 feet high in some places. Record-high temperatures led to swift snow melt and record river flow. Suddenly, the Sag flooded miles of the North Slope and endangered two of Alaska’s critical economic lifelines: TAPS and the Dalton Highway.
TAPS personnel saw it coming. The Dalton was eventually closed, but because of very rapid preventative actions along waterways near TAPS, the pipeline and the fragile environment around it was spared catastrophic damage, and the pipeline stayed in operation. Over the weeks and months that followed, we conducted a massive cleanup, dozens of inspections, many repairs, and wide-ranging restoration of waterways and fish passages impacted by the flooding.
Under this initiative even as amended, permits necessary to rapidly accomplish such critical work to protect TAPS would be more difficult to obtain, as would permits for spur dikes that redirected the Sag River’s main channel away from the Dalton Highway and the oil pipeline. TAPS, the Dalton Highway, fish streams and waterways could suffer devastating consequences.
Many individuals, organizations, and local and state agencies representing diverse interests from all corners of Alaska have stepped forward to object to the risks surrounding the initiative. TAPS personnel have embodied Alaska true grit, pride and environmental stewardship from construction to today’s vision for the next 40 years of TAPS operations and the innovation it will take to achieve it.
We plan to keep Alaska’s pipeline operating safely, while protecting Alaska’s environment, fish and wildlife. The initiative makes achieving that goal more difficult.
If the fish habitat initiative becomes law, it will hinder and prevent Alyeska from obtaining permits needed to perform work crucial to TAPS’ safe and reliable operations in a timely way. We care deeply about Alaska’s salmon and environment; we are passionate about sustaining safe, reliable TAPS operations, and its daily contribution to the Alaska economy, long into the future. I ask you to vote No on Ballot Measure 1.
Tom Barrett, a retired U.S. Coast Guard vice admiral and former deputy secretary of the Transportation Department, is president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.