Arco Marine Inc. on Tuesday unveiled plans for two new double-hull tankers it says will reduce the chances of an oil spill like the one that devastated parts of Prince William Sound eight years ago.
The company hopes to launch the two vessels in 2000. Together they will be able to carry about two-thirds of Arco Alaska Inc.'s oil from Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope fields, officials said during an Anchorage briefing.
Not only will the new ships be safer, they may be more fun for the crew. The traditional helm, or wheel, will be replaced by a joystick.
''It's a little bit larger than what you associate with a computer game,'' said Hersh Kohut, president of Arco Marine. ''But basically it works the same way.''
The new ships, part of what Arco calls its ''Millennium Class,'' are to be built by New Orleans-based Avondale Industries Inc. starting in December. They will cost $166 million each, and each will be able to haul about 42 million gallons of oil from Prince William Sound to Washington state's Puget Sound, taking about a week for the 2,400-mile round trip.
The double-hull design means the Millennium tankers will have two outer steel skins, not just one as is true of most oil tankers, including the Exxon Valdez, the ship that caused the Prince William Sound spill in 1989.
''That name (Millennium) was chosen because it represents a new generation of vessels,'' Kohut said.
After the Valdez spill, Congress enacted a law requiring double hulls on tankers by 2010. Several studies conducted before and after the Valdez spill convinced naval architects, the Coast Guard and lawmakers that the extra skin would reduce and perhaps eliminate oil spills in most cases in which a tanker runs aground.
Double hulls, which will be 10 feet apart in Arco's tankers, are considered safer because a rock penetrating the ship during a grounding may not penetrate far enough to reach the inner hull and release oil.
A Coast Guard study after the Exxon Valdez went off course and hit Bligh Reef concluded an 11.5-foot double hull on the vessel would have reduced the 11 million-gallon spill to 8.3 million gallons, perhaps to as little as 4.4 million gallons.
Besides the double hulls and the joystick on the bridge, the new tankers will have a host of other technical innovations, Arco said:
* Two independent sets of rudders, engines and propellers.
* Bow thrusters that, combined with the twin propellers and twin rudders, will allow the ship to make a 360-degree turn in its own length.
* A navigation system that warns the crew if the ship goes even slightly off-course.
John Devens, who was mayor of Valdez when the ship of the same name put his town on the world's map, showed up at Tuesday's announcement in his new capacity as head of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Committee, set up to watchdog oil operations after the Exxon spill.
''My understanding is, there would have been considerably less oil spilled had it been a double-hull tanker,'' Devens said. ''Possibly, with the improved navigation system, the problem wouldn't have occurred in the first place.''
Ken Thompson, president of Arco Alaska, said the company's decision to buy new tankers partly reflects new optimism about oil production from the North Slope.
Recently Arco and BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., the other big oil-field operator on the North Slope, have announced new discoveries and new efforts at existing fields that will result in far more oil production, and further into the future, than previously envisioned.
BP, the biggest North Slope oil producer, also is planning new double-hull tankers, said John Andes, a Cleveland-based spokesman for BP's U.S. tanker subsidiary. He said BP hasn't signed contracts or settled on a design yet, but also expects to launch its first new tanker in 2000.
Officials of SeaRiver Maritime Inc., Exxon Corp.'s tanker subsidiary, didn't return calls Tuesday.
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