Alaska's oil shippers said Wednesday they are spending $25 million to build a pair of speedy escort tugs to lower the odds of another accident like the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The two vessels will be equipped with versatile propulsion systems and hull designs that allow them to turn in tight circles and quickly accelerate so they can respond faster in emergencies.
The new ''tractor tugs'' are part of a years-long effort to reform what happens when oil-laden ships leave Valdez -- one of the world's largest tanker ports -- for refineries in Kenai and the Lower 48.
Since the Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound eight years ago, more oil-spill cleanup workers have been hired, more tanker-escort tugs have been launched, more boom and other cleanup gear have been deployed, and more vessels and crews have been solicited to race to the scene of any accident. In addition, the Coast Guard installed a high-tech system in Valdez to track where tankers are at all times.
But the oil industry for years has resisted getting the tractor tugs, saying the vessels would not be more effective and thus would not be worth the cost.
Then, early last year, the oil shippers tentatively agreed to use tractor tugs, if a new study could not find a better way to protect tankers.
Wednesday's announcement was an outgrowth of that study.
Shippers also were convinced to build the tractor tugs after a series of tests completed last week in Puget Sound, said Simon Lisiecki, manager of marine affairs in Alaska for British Petroleum, the state's biggest oil producer.
State leaders said the shipping system in Prince William Sound has steadily improved since the oil spill. With the addition of the new vessels, they said, Alaska will have the safest oil-transportation system in the world.
''The rest of the world is coming to Alaska to ask questions about oil transport and spill response,'' Lisiecki said.
The tugs and other efforts to improve safety ''will make a good system even better,'' said Rear Adm. Ernest Riutta, who commands the Coast Guard in Alaska.
''It's been several years (of effort), and we're really pleased that tractor tugs are coming to town,'' said Patty Ginsburg, spokeswoman for the Regional Citizens Advisory Council, the citizen's group that watchdogs Alaska tankers in Valdez. ''The governor kept the pressure on the oil companies, and he deserves a lot of credit. This is the right thing to do.''
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the tanker port for the oil companies, will pay the bill for the 150-foot vessels, Lisiecki said. BP owns 50 percent of Alyeska.
The vessels are due to begin operations within two years.
The new tugs will become the primary escort vessels guiding tankers through the trickiest part of their journey, a winding waterway, barely a mile wide at its narrowest point, just south of Valdez. The vessels can maneuver in all directions, and shippers say the tugs could move more quickly to brake tankers that wander off course.
In November 1995, the tanker Kenai, carrying 35 million gallons of oil, strayed to within about 600 feet of grounding near Valdez. Environmental officials blamed the Kenai crew and its escort vessels for reacting too slowly to get the tanker back on course.
Shippers also are adding a rescue tug at the entrance to Prince William Sound starting next month. They also plan to station some tugs at critical sites around Prince William Sound so they will be better positioned for emergencies.
Gov. Tony Knowles said the new safety efforts will help the state press its case to the federal government about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
''We can point to the fact that that oil is going to be shipped in absolutely the safest way possible,'' Knowles said.
The refuge is considered Alaska's best prospect to shore up declining oil revenue, but President Clinton and Congress have refused to allow drilling there because of potential environmental harm.
Building the new tugs will cost the state treasury about $6 million, said Bob King, Knowles' spokesman. The tugs' price tag will be considered part of the transportation cost of getting Alaska's oil to refineries. That transportation cost is deducted before the state treasury collects its share of production from the seven North Slope oil fields.
The oil companies involved in Wednesday's announcement include BP, Arco, Exxon, Tesoro Alaska and Chevron.
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