Foreign-flagged oil tankers calling on Valdez raise eyebrows, but no issues

ANCHORAGE — BP chartering two foreign tankers to export crude from Valdez has garnered attention for a couple reasons.

First, while not unprecedented, Alaska North Slope crude oil exports are rare.

ConocoPhillips sent a vessel operated by its subsidiary Polar Tankers to South Korea in 2014.

Prior to that shipment, however, the most recent Alaska oil export was in 2004, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Crude exports were banned nationally in 1975, but Congress and President Bill Clinton exempted Alaska oil from the restriction in 1995.

Until 2000, exports to East Asia countries were relatively common after the exemption. From 1996 through 2000, more than 78 million barrels of Alaska North Slope crude was sent to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, according to the EIA.

However, as North Slope production declined, so did exports of oil.

The national ban on oil exports was repealed last December.

In July and early August, two Bahamas-flagged tankers, the Tianlong Spirit and the Cascade Spirit, departed Valdez en route to foreign ports. The second foreign vessel to pick up Alaska North Slope crude, the Cascade Spirit, left Valdez Aug. 6.

A BP spokeswoman said the vessels were chartered and the oil was exported because of a scheduled dry-docking of another tanker and maintenance activities at West Coast refineries that are the typical landing place for Alaska oil.

The domestic shipments from Alaska require American-built and crewed tankers by Americans to comply with the Jones Act, and the vessels and crews that call on Valdez are typically longstanding, repeat customers, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials.

Donna Schantz, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, said news of the tankers flying flags other than the stars and stripes raised eyebrows in the area.

“There was a lot of concern, anytime you have foreign flagged ships — unfamiliar — you know, that haven’t been in our waters, coming in,” Schantz said.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council was established at the behest of a group of Cordova fisherman shortly after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 as a means to improve communication between the public and Alyeska. The 1990 federal Oil Pollution Act mandated the formation of citizens’ councils in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

Schantz noted that BP was “very responsive” to the many questions posed by the advisory council, but added it was a very short time between when they were notified of the vessels impending arrival and when the landed in Valdez.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Walner Alvarez, head of the Valdez Marine Safety department, said the foreign tankers must send a Notice of Arrival at least 96 hours before entering U.S. waters. From there, the requirements for them to call on Valdez are virtually identical to those for domestic vessels, he said.

“Every vessel that comes into the U.S., or pretty much any other country that is a signatory to SOLAS; they have to abide by these international standards,” Alvarez said.

SOLAS, or Safety of Life at Sea, is the set of operating standards agreed to by countries in the International Maritime Organization.

Alvarez said of the many SOLAS requirements, one eliminates the potential of a language barrier. All crewmembers aboard international sailing vessels need to be able to communicate in a common language. The IMO recognizes three working languages — English, French and Spanish — for vessels flying flags of its participating countries.

Schantz said a primary concern of the council was making sure the Tianlong and Cascade had the necessary bitts and chocks and other equipment for connecting to tugs.

Since 2010, every tanker traveling in and out of Valdez must get a double-tug escort.

It is her understanding that both vessels had to be equipped with new tow packages for their trips to Prince William Sound.

“From what I understand there was a lot of conversation between Alyeska (Pipeline Service Co.), BP and the tanker crew to make sure there was an understanding of the process and procedures here, the escorting process, docking the tanker over at the terminal, basically the procedures for navigating ice from Columbia Glacier, just overall communications,” Schantz said. “It sounded like there was a lot of scrutiny on these ships by both the Coast Guard, Alyeska, the (Alaska) Department of Environmental Conservation and I feel like there was fairly good communication with us in terms of what was happening.”

Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said the terminal operating company was mostly focused on making sure the vessels had the proper equipment to dock and take oil once they arrived.

In a statement, BP emphasized that the ships met every state and federal requirement.

“Our first priority is to safely operate the tanker(s) in compliance with the strict shipping rules and regulations,” a BP spokeswoman wrote.

Before docking in Valdez, every tanker, foreign or domestic, must have a state marine pilot on board, Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service Director for Prince William Sound Lt. Ben Bauman said. The pilots are there to provide localized advice to the vessel crews.

“The same guy that’s coming on board these foreign vessels has seen this operation hundreds of times, most likely, on a domestic vessel, so from that perspective it shouldn’t look any different,” Bauman said.

The marine pilots in Prince William Sound are from the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, the same organization that guides ships in and out of Cook Inlet.

Schantz said advisory council staff will brief the group’s board of directors on the procedures for foreign tankers at its Sept. 15 meeting in Cordova.

“I think what’s in place today is a lot safer than it was before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but at least from the citizens’ council, as long as there’s tankers taking oil out of Valdez you’re never going to completely eliminate the risk. There’s always that concern of having crews that maybe have never been in our waters and I think at least the citizens’ council probably has more concerns than other folks do with that,” Schantz said. “What we go by is ‘trust but verify.’”

• Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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