Longtime provider of oil tanker escorts in Prince William Sound is stepping aside

A maritime company that for at least two decades has provided tugboats to escort loaded oil tankers out of Prince William Sound, is no longer competing for the contract to provide that service, causing alarm among observers who don't want a repeat of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

With Florida-based Crowley Marine out of the running for the contract, at least one candidate remains: Edison Chouest, the company whose tug, the 360-foot Aiviq, towed Shell's drilling rig Kulluk before lines snapped and the rig wrecked off the Alaska coast in late 2012.

"We are competing," said Roger White, with Edison Chouest in Louisiana. "We are a company that looks forward to having some additional success in Alaska."

Other companies may also be in the running to win the contract, provided by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the pipeline on behalf of its oil-company owners, principally BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. The contract includes oil spill response services out of the Valdez Marine Terminal, where the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline ends and oceangoing ships take on oil.

Michelle Egan, director of corporate communications for Alyeska, would not say which companies bid on the contract. But she confirmed that longtime contractor Crowley, as of earlier this month, is no longer part of a bidding process that began in 2014.

Crowley's contract extends through mid-2018, she said.

"We're moving forward with another bidder," Egan said, but would not name the company.

The new contract is expected to be awarded by the end of the year, Egan said, though White, from Edison Chouest, said he thought the process might be finished more quickly than that.

"I think you're probably 60 to 90 days before we're done," he said.

Crowley has held the contract for more than 20 years and has provided marine services for Alyeska in Prince William Sound since 1990, when new safety requirements after the Exxon Valdez disaster included increased tug escorts.

The transition to a new escort contractor, presumably with new personnel and different tugs and oil spill response barges, is a "big, huge deal," said Donna Schantz, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, the official watchdog group.

"We are very concerned about this," said Schantz.

She said the council doesn't know which company, or companies, may have a shot at winning the contract. But the fact that a new contractor will step in, requiring new training, at a time when state budget cuts could reduce regulatory personnel is worrisome, she said.

Spill prevention and response officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation helped oversee increased protection about 15 years ago, after Crowley brought powerful new tractor tugs to Alaska to handle the escorts, she said.

This new transition will be bigger than that, she said.

"This will be a huge burden on DEC," she said. "A big concern is, will they have the staffing and people to oversee this change because all state departments are challenged with cutbacks? The Coast Guard will have a role as well, but the state statutes and regulations are really what drive the tug specifications that we've enjoyed in the past."

She said Crowley has done a good job, but the company has had ups and downs, including the grounding of a tug, the Pathfinder, on Bligh Reef in 2009, the same spot where the Exxon Valdez also ran aground 27 years ago this month.

The number of tankers leaving Valdez with crude oil has fallen sharply since 1989, when North Slope oil production was more than three times higher than the 540,000 barrels of oil daily throughput in February.

Still, an oil tanker leaves Valdez about every 1 1/2 days.

Alyeska will make sure the transition meets all requirements and that "full services" continue, Egan said.

Though Crowley is no longer competing for the contract, the company will be "engaged" in the transition process, said a statement from Mark Miller, the company's vice president of corporate communications.

"We are fully committed to continued professional services and full compliance," he said.

Edison Chouest, which has made large contributions to Alaska's congressional delegation and was faulted for errors by the U.S. Coast Guard during the investigation into the Kulluk grounding, is expanding its presence in the state.

It has partnered with Native corporations on ventures such as the Deadhorse Aviation Center that provides a hangar, terminal and other services to support North Slope oil operations.

White said a number of factors contributed to the wreck of the Kulluk, including heavy seas with improper towing gear that snapped.

"It was not our fault, or the fault of the vessel or its crew," White said of the Aiviq.

If Edison Chouest wins the bid in Prince William Sound, the Aiviq would not be part of the contract, he said.