Legislators cautioned about oil spill response readiness

Elizabeth Bluemink

A Valdez-based citizen watchdog group told legislators Tuesday that the state's arsenal of oil-response equipment lags behind modern technology and the state division that enforces the rules for preventing and cleaning up spills has an "ever-worsening funding shortage."

The Valdez group, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Council, and its counterpart, the Kenai-based Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, were among those testifying at a state Senate Resources Committee hearing in Anchorage on Tuesday. The purpose of the hearing was to examine whether the state's rules for oil and gas developers are adequate to prevent and clean up spills.

The Kenai-based council said it hired a contractor this summer to review the adequacy of the state's oil-spill prevention and cleanup rules. Several state agencies said they are also looking for potential weak spots in their regulations in light of BP's spills from corroded pipes on the North Slope in 2006 and BP's massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

The Valdez-based council argued for inflation-proofing the state Division of Spill Prevention and Response's budget and it requested stricter rules to ensure that spill responders' equipment is the best available.

Congress mandated the two watchdog councils after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.

The state's spill division chief agreed with the Valdez-based group that his budget could be in trouble in the future. For spill response, oil producers pay a surcharge to the state on every barrel of oil, but with North Slope production declining, the total revenue collected has fallen, too. The division hasn't had to cut its budget yet, due to legislative intervention, said the division chief, Larry Dietrick.

"We track this problem very carefully," Dietrick said.

In an interview, Dietrick responded to the watchdog group's criticism of the spill-response arsenal used in Alaska. He said the companies can use whatever equipment they want but they have to meet the toughest spill cleanup standards in the country, if not the world.

But the citizen group believes the state isn't giving enough incentive to the oil industry to spur "more significant" improvements in cleanup technology, according to Mark Swanson, who heads the Valdez group.

State regulators said during the hearing that they will consider changes in how they regulate drilling.

Some of that analysis has been pending for several years -- the Palin administration required a couple of spill-risk related studies after BP's major spills from corroded pipelines on the North Slope tundra in 2006. Those studies are not finished yet, regulators said.

This summer, state regulators began tracking possible ways to reduce hazards from offshore oil drilling after BP's Gulf of Mexico spill.

Larry Hartig, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said any proposed changes will need "careful consideration" and he is waiting for national experts who are studying the Gulf spill to release their findings. Those reports are expected this year.

Two major oil companies -- Royal Dutch Shell and Conoco Phillips -- and several environmental groups also testified during the Senate committee hearing about drilling off Alaska's northern coast. The companies hope to explore for oil on federal leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who co-chairs the Resources Committee, said he doesn't believe the companies will be allowed to drill unless the state convinces federal regulators it can be done safely.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.