Exxon Valdez - Legacy of a Spill

Thursday
May 13, 1999

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos


Double-hull tankers face slow going

By TOM KIZZIA
Daily News reporter



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Ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill, new tankers have yet to be added to the aging fleet sailing through Prince William Sound. Now oil companies are pressing for further delays to a congressional deadline for bringing safer double-hull ships to Alaska.

Citing economic reasons, Alaska's oil shippers in January asked the Coast Guard to let them extend the life of existing tankers an additional five years. They say the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which set a schedule for phasing out older single-hull tankers from U.S. ports, intended to allow such extensions if the older tankers are retrofitted with "double sides."

Existing tankers could provide the same double-hull-type protection against spills from collisions, oil companies say, if the ships were modified to carry water in wing tanks exposed to the sea.

Environmentalists are outraged, saying government officials have repeatedly reneged on promises dating from before the trans-Alaska pipeline to bring safer, double-hull tankers to Prince William Sound.

"The Alaska fleet is now substantially older than the international fleet serving places like Rotterdam and Japan," said Walt Parker, former chairman of the state's Alaska Oil Spill Commission, one of many groups that have recommended tough double-hull standards.

But the Knowles administration said it is willing to defer to the Coast Guard and accept reconfigured "double-sided" tankers, as long as the ships have double bottoms to protect against groundings in Prince William Sound.

The Coast Guard expects to rule on the oil industry's request in the next few months, said Bob Gauvin, a project manager for the Coast Guard's national office of operating and environmental standards.

While great strides have been made since the Exxon Valdez spill in setting up an oil-spill prevention system in Prince William Sound, the question of double-hull tankers remains a major battleground.

"We are still missing the biggest prevention tool that everybody knows about, and that's double hulls," said Cordova biologist Riki Ott, a longtime industry critic.

Atlantic Richfield announced in January it had slowed production of its new "Millennium Class" double-hull tankers, while British Petroleum says it has not gone beyond initial design work.

Exxon, responsible for the spill that led to the double-hull law, is going further than its Prudhoe Bay partners - it now says it may never build double-hull ships for the Alaska trade. With oil prices low and North Slope production declining, investment in expensive U.S.-built tankers for Alaska may no longer make sense, said SeaRiver Maritime Inc., Exxon's tanker subsidiary.

Studies have shown that a second steel skin on a tanker would prevent some spills after accidents and reduce others. A Coast Guard study estimated the Exxon Valdez spill would have lost 60 percent less oil with a double hull.

Interior Department officials who were promoting construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline during the Nixon administration promised double hulls would be required for the tanker fleet. The state of Alaska adopted strong incentives for double hulls under a 1976 tanker safety law that was thrown out in 1978 in federal court. Oil companies had sued the state, arguing that the tough state law was an infringement on interstate commerce.

Several double-hull tankers were built for Alaska while that law was in effect. After it was thrown out, those tankers began carrying oil in the protective outer tanks, wiping out the margin of safety that was designed into them, Parker said.

The 1990 law, passed while the Prince William Sound spill was still fresh in the minds of Americans, required double-hulls for all U.S. ports. But the law gave oil companies a long phaseout period, depending on each tanker's age, with the last prespill tankers going out of service in 2015. Environmentalists had fought the long phaseout period, calling it excessive.

Several tankers built in the early 1970s for the Alaska trade have been retired under the 1990 schedule. But several years ago, Exxon and Chevron sailed some of the oldest tankers in the Alaska fleet through a loophole in the act.

The two companies reduced the volume of oil carried by their four tankers, thereby reclassifying them as smaller tankers with later phaseout dates. Congress finally closed that loophole in 1997. But the SeaRiver San Francisco, SeaRiver Baton Rouge, SeaRiver Philadelphia and Chevron Mississippi will sail into the new century thanks to their owners' creative thinking.

Today, only three of the 26 tankers operating in Prince William Sound have a double hull as a safety measure against oil spills. All three are operated by transport companies under contract to BP. Arco Marine has plans for three "Millennium" tankers equipped not just with double hulls but also enhanced backup systems such as extra engines and rudders.

But with federal phaseouts starting to take effect on some of the older ships, oil companies went to the Coast Guard last year with an interim proposition: If they started carrying seawater ballast in the ships' wing tanks instead of oil, would that qualify under the law for a later phaseout date?

The Coast Guard supported the concept in theory two years ago, said Gauvin, the agency's project manager. The question now is whether tankers converted after the 1990 law can qualify for an extension, he said.

Such a conversion would require some piping work inside the tankers and would reduce tanker capacity by about one-third, Gauvin said.

But the alternative is expensive because the Alaska fleet travels between U.S. ports and has to be built in the United States under the Jones Act. Arco's new tankers are costing about $180 million each. The Jones Act tankers are about three times the cost of a foreign-built tanker, according to Exxon's SeaRiver Maritime.

"An investment like that requires a demonstrated need over a long period of time," said SeaRiver spokesman Arthur Stephen. Given the declining trend in Alaska oil shipments and the absence of other uses for Jones Act tankers, such an investment may not be justified, Stephen said.

If the Coast Guard insists on new ships, SeaRiver told the agency, Exxon might choose to leave Alaska oil in the ground by curtailing its North Slope production and import cheaper foreign oil. That would cost the state of Alaska revenue, at least in the near term.

The state probably would take Exxon to court under such a scenario to protect its interest in the oil and revenue, said state Commissioner of Natural Resources John Shively. But if Exxon doesn't have access to legal tankers and other oil companies aren't able to take the extra oil, North Slope production would have to be cut back, Shively said.

Exxon's tough stance is particularly aggravating with memories of 1989 still fresh, said Tom Copeland, who represents environmentalists on the board of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council.

"No one can afford it as well as Exxon, but they're always the last one to be dragged in kicking and screaming," Copeland said. "The world's largest oil company continues to be the biggest chiseler out there."

But even Arco, the first company to begin building new double-hull tankers, is supporting the proposed double-skin rule. Arco is under more pressure than Exxon to replace its fleet because its tankers are older and must retire sooner under the federal schedule. Arco said the double-skin rule would give the company flexibility in case unanticipated declines in oil production alter transportation demand and slow construction schedules.

Production-line delays have put construction of Arco's first new double-hull tanker, the Endeavour, six months behind schedule, according to Arco Marine spokeswoman Cheryl Burnett. Plans for the next two have been postponed for a year because of low oil prices and concerns about declining North Slope production, company officials said. The ships currently are scheduled for delivery in late 2000, 2001 and 2002.

The state decided "the sky did not necessarily fall" if the Coast Guard ruled older tankers could be reconfigured, said Michele Brown, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. But the tanker must have a built-in double bottom to ensure protection under the double-sided option, she said. About half the tankers in the Sound now have double bottoms, the state says.

"Anything less than achieving the double-hull level of protection is not acceptable," Brown said.

The double-side idea is opposed, however, by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a public watchdog group set up under the 1990 federal law. RCAC officials said wing tanks in single-hull tankers are not treated for saltwater corrosion like the buffer tanks in double-hull tankers.

Furthermore, they said, the federal law was intended to bring new tankers and new technology to the Sound along with double hulls.

"The problem is that all the tankers are very old, and they go through tremendous stress going across the Gulf," said RCAC president Stan Stephens.

"It was clearly understood that you'd be getting new tankers with all new and better gear," said Peter Lehner, a New York-based attorney who has followed the double-hull debate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization.

If oil shippers are sincere about wanting to improve safety in the Sound, they could have made their ships double-sided the day after the spill instead of waiting until now, said industry critic Ott.

In fact, the Coast Guard rejected such a proposal as an uneconomic interim step, Lehner said.

"So here they are coming back and saying now we can pretend it's a double hull," Lehner said. "This is a measure they didn't find very worthwhile before."

For Exxon, there is another alternative that could add to the life of its fleet: bring back the Exxon Valdez, banished from Alaska after the oil spill by an act of Congress proposed by Sen. Ted Stevens R-Alaska. As a Jones Act tanker with a retirement date of 2010, it would be one of the youngest ships in Exxon's Alaska fleet.

Exxon has appealed a federal court decision upholding the ban. Meanwhile the tanker, now named the SeaRiver Mediterranean, has been carrying Saudi Arabian oil from the eastern Mediterranean to northern European ports since 1990.

"Its performance has been exemplary," said SeaRiver's Stephen. "They love that vessel over there, compared to some of the tonnage they see coming into those ports."


Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

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