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Alyeska Pipeline signs deal with new contractor for tanker escorts

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: August 10, 2016
  • Published August 10, 2016

A company involved in the grounding of Shell's Kulluk drilling rig has signed a contract with the operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline to provide safety escorts for oil tankers in Prince William Sound.

An official with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. said the company signed the 10-year deal with Louisiana shipbuilder Edison Chouest on Friday.

The deal, in the works for months, has prompted vigorous protests from organized labor.

Edison Chouest is a nonunion maritime company with a growing presence in Alaska. The Alyeska contract is set to begin in July 2018, following what Alyeska calls a two-year transition already underway.

Edison Chouest will replace the company that has provided the service for decades, Crowley Marine, a Florida-based firm with longtime operations in Alaska.

Crowley employs about 250 workers as part of the spill-response and tanker-escort contract. The workforce is represented primarily by the Inlandboatmen's Union of Seattle and the Maryland-based International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.

Four tugboats are docked alongside a barge at the SERVS facility in Valdez on Feb. 15, 2016. The tugs escort oil tankers through the shipping lanes of Prince William Sound, and the barge supports nearshore oil spill recovery operations. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

The unions have charged that Alyeska is seeking to cut costs by employing a new contractor with a poor record that will hire inexperienced outsiders to replace Alaskans. The groups have called for public scrutiny of the contract because it protects a valuable public resource supporting fishermen, tour operators and unique wildlife.

Alyeska confirmed in March it was changing contractors. The not-for-profit pipeline operator is owned principally by BP, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, and manages the Ship Escort Response Vessel System put in place after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Alyeska has not released the price of the contract.

Michelle Egan, corporate communications director for Alyeska, said in an emailed statement the company is focused on protecting Prince William Sound.

"The new contract does not save costs," she said.

Edison Chouest is building five escort tugs, four docking tugs and three barges, she said.

"These represent state-of-the-art technology and will be purpose-built for Prince William Sound," she said. "Alyeska and Chouest gave a lot of thought to the escort tug design, taking into account cutting-edge technology and stakeholder input.  We believe these tugs offer improved system performance and will meet or exceed all regulatory commitments."

Egan said key stakeholders and regulatory agencies have been engaged as part of the two-year transition that involves Crowley Marine. She said renewal of the spill response contingency plan for the Sound is a public process. The plan is up for renewal every five years and undergoes regulatory review and approval. It's now under review after a 30-day public comment period that closed July 1. 

"The authorities and the public do have a role in establishing the standards for the response system, and Alyeska and its contractors must meet or exceed those standards — regardless of who the contractor is," she said.

"In fact, we have to repeatedly demonstrate that we can protect the Sound. We do this through drills and exercises and regular on-site visits from regulators," she said.

The unions, with about 10,000 members nationally, have vowed to maintain public pressure on Alyeska in hope of reversing the agreement, and have launched a TV ad and online petition attacking the change.

"Representatives of two companies put their names on a scrap of paper, but this is not a done deal," Alan Cote, president of the Inlandboatmen's Union, said in a statement Tuesday. "They don't own Prince William Sound. We're insisting that state and local authorities take a much closer look at this agreement, which was negotiated behind closed doors with the goal of cutting costs and cutting corners."

The unions have focused much of their attention on Rep. Don Young, a recipient of large donations from Edison Chouest donations. His campaign said it's not appropriate for Young to weigh in on private contractual issues.

An official with Edison Chouest in Alaska could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Edison Chouest built the 360-foot Aiviq to support Shell's drilling campaign in the U.S. Arctic Ocean that was abandoned last year. The Aiviq towed Shell's drilling rig Kulluk before lines snapped and the rig wrecked off the coast of Kodiak in late 2012. Edison and other companies were faulted for errors by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Edison Chouest has maintained it was not at fault. Company officials have said they look forward to hiring Alaskans and will train them in Alaska, Louisiana and elsewhere.