Spill response comments range from status quo to modernization

  • Fishing vessels deploy containment boom during an oil spill response drill near Whittier on Sept. 25, 2018. The comment period opened for possible revisions to exisiting spill response regulations closed March 16 with responses ranging from maintaining the status quo to modernizing rules for equipment such as skimmers. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)
  • Two brand new tugs built by Edison Chouest are seen alongside a spill response barge during a drill on Sept. 25, 2018, near Whittier. The company took over ship escort and spill response duties that year from Crowley Maritime, which had the contract since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)

Department of Environmental Conservation officials received a mixed bag of comments, but not a huge volume, to their somewhat controversial opening of the state’s oil spill prevention and response regulations to possible revisions.

While the decision last fall to solicit public input on and proposed changes to the regulations drew sharp responses from numerous conservation and fishing industry groups as well local governments in coastal communities, just more than 120 businesses, trade groups, community organizations and individual Alaskans commented over the 153-day comment period that ended March 16.

Most members of the public urged DEC officials to maintain the current levels of protections in the regulations and many questioned why the department would open the regulations to possible changes given the state’s reliance on marine resources and the relative lack of large fuel or oil spills in the state since the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

DEC Commissioner Jason Brune said he wanted to make sure the regulations weren’t unnecessarily burdening industry without a corresponding environmental benefit and had no intent to do away with the requirements prior to opening the scoping period last October.

Brune said at the time that he had heard from industry representatives that there are ways the detailed rules could be improved; however, he declined to elaborate on specific suggestions, saying he did not want to color any subsequent public comments.

He said in a department statement following the close of the comment period that he's excited about the feedback the department recieved.

"It is not our intent to roll back environmental protections. If the department determines there are changes to be made to the regulations, those will go through a fully transparent public process later this year that will include additional opportunity for the public to provide comment," Brune said.

Local government officials by and large also emphasized a general desire for the department to uphold current levels of oversight on the oil and gas industry while also suggesting some changes to clarify and strengthen the existing regulatory code.

City and Tribal councils and assemblies from Cordova, Homer, Kodiak, Valdez the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Kotzebue submitted resolutions against actions to ease the regulations.

Oil and gas producers did not offer comments but businesses in other subsets of the industry such as fuel shippers, oilfield service companies and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. all offered numerous ways they feel the regulations are too rigid, unclear, or outdated.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council offered 12 pages of comments stressing a belief that the regulations are not necessarily flawed as written.

The council acknowledged that it’s likely the “current regulations could be clarified or simplified to improve their usability,” but also said the oil discharge prevention and contingency plans that all companies processing and shipping fuels and crude must have to operate in the state serve seven broad objectives to protect the environment.

The contingency plans, often referred to as C-plans by stakeholders, amount to “working” emergency plans that provided detailed and long-term response procedures, according to the PWS council. They are also a way to assess past spills at a facility and serve both as a demonstration that the plan holder is using best available technology in its operations and as “a permit to operate that, if not followed, is a violation of law,” PWS council officials wrote.

Cook Inlet Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council Executive Director Mike Munger similarly emphasized the seven functions of the regulations and wrote that council officials “believe that sweeping changes to the current requirements are not warranted,” adding that any changes easing spill prevention, preparedness or transparency would be “unacceptable.”

The councils for Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, established following the Exxon Valdez spill and mandated by the Oil Pollution Act passed by Congress in 1990, used the scoping period to offer several ways the regulations could be strengthened or otherwise improved.

The Cook Inlet council, for instance, requested that international standards be used to determine oil skimmer recovery rates and that efficiency mandates be established in the regulations.

“At this time, there is no generally required methodology for response organizations to determine the best equipment to use or for plan reviewers to assess the adequacy of the equipment included in plans,” Munger wrote.

Skimmers are towed behind or alongside vessels to collect oil from the surface of the water. While widespread in oil spill response, questions to their efficacy, particularly in waves or ice conditions, are regularly raised amongst stakeholders.

Jim Ayers, a former director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and chief of staff to former Gov. Tony Knowles argued against major changes to regulating an industry “that has repeatedly proven its inability to self-regulate,” and urged DEC to continue incorporating lessons from the Exxon Valdez and the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico spills into its oversight of the oil industry.

“DEC’s supposition that this framework is too burdensome — after 30 years of industry compliance and numerous revisions to streamline regulations — is not only untrue, but also transfers the burden of another disaster to the communities and environment DEC is charged with protecting,” Ayers wrote.

Alyeska Pipeline Emergency Preparedness and Response Director Andres Morales suggested numerous technical and clarification changes that company officials feel would help “optimize” the regulations.

Alyeska is owned by the major North Slope Producers. It operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the Valdez Marine Terminal.

Morales offered a handful of examples where Alyeska officials believe state regulations are duplicative to federal requirements; requested more specificity in areas of regulation that defer to “department discretion;” and — as did other industry stakeholders — asked for more standardized timelines and processes in approving C-plan amendments and other procedural mandates.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association supplied 28 pages of comments asking DEC officials to modernize regulatory language and standards to reflect current industry standards.

AOGA Regulatory and Legal Affairs Manager Patrick Bergt also wrote that the trade group does not believe a “best available technology” analysis should be required in instances when C-plans must be in line with good engineering practices, applicable industry standards and state and federal regional and area contingency plans.

“AOGA believes these issues can be addressed and the regulatory schemes streamlined without increasing any risks of damage or harm to the environment,” Bergt wrote. “More certainty in the requirements and a clearer description of compliance standards would lend itself to more consistency in implementing spill prevention.”

The Alaska Fuel Storage and Handling Alliance, multiple fuel shipping companies and Marathon Petroleum Co., which owns the Nikiski refinery, submitted similar comments along those conceptual lines.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/19/2020 - 11:55am