OPINION: Congress can improve oil spill response in Alaska. Let’s support action.

Alaska has almost 7,000 miles of coastline (34,000 miles if you count islands), which is more than the rest of the United States. The Coast Guard has the duty to help ensure environmental protection of that coastline — a responsibility I know the Coast Guard takes very seriously. However, despite efforts under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), passed more than 30 years ago, there remain significant legislative inconsistencies that I believe make it difficult for the Coast Guard to adequately fulfill that responsibility.

When Congress passed OPA 90, a principal objective was requiring vessel owners and operators to be better equipped to respond to an oil spill and head off a large, disaster-scale event. For the Lower 48, consistent National Planning Criteria (NPC) provide spill prevention and response standards that address the requirements imposed by OPA 90.

Alaska waters are vastly different from the waters that surround the Lower 48. The Western Alaska and Gulf of Alaska ocean regions alone encompass more than one million square miles of ocean with sparse infrastructure and some of the worst weather on the planet. Greater distances and harsh operating environment mean a structure of NPC-type spill response centers is not possible. This dilemma led to adoption of Alternative Planning Criteria (APC) to demonstrate spill response readiness by vessels transiting Alaska’s oceans. Under these APC plans, each vessel must explain why the national planning criteria are inappropriate, i.e., unattainable, and then propose alternatives to mitigate a potential oil spill to the Coast Guard. There are no minimum standards or metric for these alternatives. As a result, a subjective ad hoc system has evolved. Many operators’ plans end up with completely different requirements proposed as alternatives, compounding the inconsistency in capabilities.

Although APC try to address the distinct challenges of oil spill response in Alaska, they suffer from inconsistencies, lack of clarity, and discontinuity in requirements. The lack of a consistent standards based approach poses a risk to our bountiful oceans and marine life.

Problems with the APC process were also recently outlined in a report conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which heighted lengthy plan review timelines, rotation of knowledgeable Coast Guard personnel, and lack of clarity in evaluating and accounting for the benefits of various prevention measures.

The Alternate Planning Criteria process simply isn’t working well enough. As our region continues to see increased vessel traffic, the urgency of this problem will only increase.

Congress should timely adopt a consistent, uniform set of standards to better prevent spills on Alaskan oceans and ensure adequate response to any that might occur. This would reduce risks to the Alaska marine environment and provide more planning certainty to the marine industry. Section 510 of the 2022 Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill was championed by Congressman Young in the House and is now being considered in the Senate. Section 510 would achieve the solutions needed for Alaska’s oceans.

One large oil spill — just one — could decimate Alaska’s vast coastline and the people, economies, communities and cultures that depend on that coastline. The current response planning process is inadequate to the task and should be promptly revised to better prevent spills and improve response capabilities.

Tom Barrett is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral, former Commander of the Seventeenth Coast Guard District (Alaska), and Former Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Tom lives in Anchorage with his wife and continues to serve the community and state in volunteer positions.

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Tom Barrett

Tom Barrett is president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the consortium responsible for maintaining and operating the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.