Two-tug tanker escort could become federal law

The Alaska congressional delegation said it is pushing legislation that would require loaded oil tankers to be escorted by at least two vessels that can tow them away from trouble as they sail through Prince William Sound.
Congress authorized the current escort rules in 1990 as part of the reforms written after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the Sound a year earlier. The Exxon Valdez had just a single hull. Congress required that single-hull tankers get the escort tugs. Another reform was to retire all the single-hull tankers over time and replace them with safer double-hull ships.
The last single-hull tanker will be retired from service in 2012. Almost all Alaska oil is shipped through the Sound now on double-hulled tankers.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the oil company-owned business that runs the Valdez tanker port, now provides two-tug escorts as part of its plan for preventing oil spills. But that plan expires in 2012 and watchdog groups fear the oil industry might try to lower the requirement to one tug to save money.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich this week introduced legislation that would require the loaded double-hull tankers to be escorted, making the current practice federal law.
"While I recognize that double hulled tankers are an improvement over single hulls, they will not, by themselves, prevent oil spills," said Murkowski, R-Alaska.
"The dual escort coverage of tankers operating in Prince William Sound has helped ensure we have the best oil transportation system in the world," said Begich, D-Alaska. "The tractor tugs have proved their usefulness several times when tankers needed assistance."
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is working on a House version of the proposal, the delegation said. Alyeska officials say tankers have operated safely since the spill.
"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," said Michelle Egan, Alyeska spokeswoman.
"We currently provide two escorts for each tanker, whether it's doubled-hulled or not, and will continue to do so as long as it's part of the response plan."
But a key watchdog group also mandated by Congress after the Exxon spill is looking to the future.
"It was clear that something needed to be done, so this is what we decided to do," said Stan Jones, spokesman 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."
The oil industry has called for a risk assessment on tug escorts, which could be a step to build the case to reduce escorts, the council said.
Alyeska officials said they have not been out front pushing to reduce escort tugs.

Source: EXXON VALDEZ: Plan currently requiring them expires in 2012.