Murkowski, Begich team up on tanker escort bill

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate on Thursday that would require every oil tanker leaving the Valdez Marine Terminal to be escorted out of Prince William Sound by two response tugboats.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. currently provides the two-tug service, but some watchdog groups fear the industry may attempt to lower that to one tug in an effort to save money in the future.
Alyeska provides the two-tug escorts because its response plan -- updated after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill -- demands it. That plan expires in 2012.
Alyeska officials are quick to point out that the tankers have operated safely since the spill.
"The system works really well, and we've been escorting tankers," Alyeska spokesperson Michelle Egan said. "I think we've escorted about 11,000 tankers through the sound successfully, so we're doing a good job and we'll continue doing it.
"We currently provide two escorts for each tanker, whether its doubled-hulled or not, and will continue to do so as long as it's part of the response plan."
Federal law demands single-hulled tankers have two-tug escorts, but the last single-hulled ships in the fleet are set to retire in 2012.
Many, including the two Alaska senators who introduced the legislation, are concerned about what will happen after 2012.
"Looking down the road for the long haul, it was clear that something needed to be done, so this is what we decided to do," said Stan Jones, spokesperson for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council  "There have been repeated signals from the industry in the past that they would be interested in cutting the escort system."
A day after Murkowski and Begich argued against each other on a filibuster attempt, the senators joined together to file the bill. They say the system has worked well since it went into effect after the Exxon spill, and they don't think it should change.
"I think we want to make sure we do not run any unnecessary risk, and even though the tankers may be doubled-hulled, things can happen," Murkowski said.
"Having just the double-hulled tankers is not the only answer," Begich said. "You have to have these dual tugs moving in and out with the tankers.
"In the past, we have already seen the benefit."
Alyeska officials say they have not been out front saying they want to reduce the number of escort tugs.
But the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council says it has heard the industry wants to do a risk assessment on tug escorts, which they believe is an effort to build the case to reduce those escorts to one.