Plan to replace tanker escort in Prince William Sound raises concerns in Valdez

Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, is splitting with its longtime provider of oil spill prevention and response services in Prince William Sound.

Crowley Marine Services announced last week that its bid to continue the work has not been accepted. And in a region where the memory of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill remains fresh, that decision is raising concerns.

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U.S. Navy Mechanized Landing Craft anchored along the shoreline as Navy and civilian personnel position hoses during the Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up on Smith Island in Prince William Sound, March 24, 1989. (Public domain photo by PH2 POCHE)
U.S. Navy Mechanized Landing Craft anchored along the shoreline as Navy and civilian personnel position hoses during the Exxon Valdez oil spill clean-up on Smith Island in Prince William Sound, March 24, 1989. (Public domain photo by PH2 POCHE)

Right now, Crowley provides the escort tugboats that accompany oil tankers out of Prince William Sound; it also manages the oil spill response barges that would be first on the scene were there ever an accident. The company has held at least part of that contract for more than 25 years and has provided all the ship escort and response vessel services for the last decade.

As of July 2018, Crowley Marine Services will no longer provide oil tanker escort tugs or oil spill response in Prince William Sound. Screenshot March 22, 2016
As of July 2018, Crowley Marine Services will no longer provide oil tanker escort tugs or oil spill response in Prince William Sound. Screenshot March 22, 2016

“It’s a key oil spill prevention and response measure for Prince William Sound,” said Donna Schantz, who heads up the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, a watchdog group set up by Congress after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What’s at stake is more than just a contract, she said. “It’s a very, very important role.”

But Crowley’s contract is up for renewal — and last week, they announced their bid has been rejected. It’s not yet clear who might take their place. The bidding process isn’t complete.

Schantz said she and many others in Valdez were taken by surprise. The current system, she said, is working pretty well.

“The fact that we haven’t had a major oil tanker incident is a pretty good indicator,” she said. “I think Crowley’s done a really good job.”

Crowley has made it clear the break-up isn’t its choice. Representatives wouldn’t speak by phone, citing the sensitivity of the issue. But in a press release, CEO Tom Crowley said his company “bid this contract very aggressively and [is] extremely disappointed.”

Crowley also couldn’t offer any details as to why their bid was rejected. Alyeska spokesperson Kate Dugan said she can’t comment while the bidding process is still underway.

“It’s a competitive landscape, and that’s all I can really say about that,” Dugan said. “The details of the contract, not just the contract itself, but the whole process of how and why we make decisions like this, is to protect the privacy of the bidders and to get the most competitive deal we can get.”

Alyeska operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and its Valdez terminal, and is controlled by the pipeline owners, primarily ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips.

Dugan said Alyeska is committed to protecting Prince William Sound, which is why it started the bidding process well before the current contract expires in 2018.

“We were deliberate in that so that we could make sure that any transition, if there was going to be a transition, would be thoughtful and honor the commitment we have to Prince William Sound,” she said.

Dugan couldn’t confirm what company – or companies – are still in the running. But Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore told the Alaska Dispatch News that they are competing for the contract.

Edison Chouest has operations worldwide, but they are perhaps best known in Alaska for the Aviq tugboat, which was pulling Shell’s arctic drill rig, the Kulluk, across the Gulf of Alaska in 2012 when the rig broke loose and grounded off Kodiak.

Meanwhile, Crowley employs about 250 people in Valdez. In its statement, the company said it would “look for opportunities to redeploy” employees. But Alan Cote, national president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, which represents about 150 deckhands, engineers and cooks working for Crowley, said it would be hard for any company to absorb that many people.

His members are worried, he said, “especially now, with the reduction in oil exploration and production in Alaska. It’s really a catch-22 for these workers, the union and the company.”

Schantz, of the Citizens’ Council, said her group will work with whatever company wins the contract. But, she said, whoever it is will face a steep learning curve.

“We don’t know yet, but we are assuming we’re going to have new tugs coming in, new barges, new people,” she said. “And just pulling all those pieces together, and making sure that the prevention and response in place isn’t compromised during that transition process is going to be significant.”

Crowley will continue providing services through June 2018. Alyeska expects to announce its new contractor by early summer.