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Safe Oil: A Moving Debate : Pipelines Are Safer but Tankers Offer a Lot More Options

Times Staff Writer

A long, acrimonious debate in the early 1970s on how to get Alaska’s remote crude oil to market ultimately rejected such schemes as hauling it by specially equipped icebreaker-tankers through the Northwest Passage to East Coast ports.

A more practical concept--piping it all the way from Prudhoe Bay through Canada to the U.S. Midwest--was encouraged by many in the Defense, State and Interior departments as better from an economic, environmental and national security point of view.

But the oil industry, the state of Alaska, the White House and others disagreed. In the interests of simplicity and speed, it was decided to construct an 800-mile pipeline from the oil fields south to the ice-free port of Valdez and use tankers to complete the oil’s journey to the lower 48 states.

“It was probably the wrong decision, although you could never prove it,” says Arlon R. Tussing, a Seattle energy consultant and expert on Alaskan oil who was chief economist for the U.S. Senate Interior Committee during the pipeline debate.

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The correctness of the pipeline decision is academic, to say the least. But the subject of transporting oil has moved to center stage again following the nation’s worst oil spill, last week’s grounding of the Exxon Valdez on a reef in Prince William Sound that has dumped about 10 million gallons of oil into the ocean.

The Exxon tanker is one of about 70 that regularly ply the waters from the port of Valdez carrying oil to Hawaii, the Puget Sound, Los Angeles and the Panama Canal, where some Alaskan crude is piped to tankers waiting on the Atlantic side to take petroleum to Gulf Coast and Virgin Island refineries.

That diversity of destinations underscores one of the commercial attractions of tankers: They can go wherever the oil is needed, and the number of vessels can rise or fall as demand changes or the oil resources are depleted.

Tussing says planners saw that as a big advantage when the size and location of markets for Alaska’s huge Prudhoe Bay reserves, discovered in 1968, was uncertain. It was also seen as cheaper and bureaucratically simpler because the pipeline could be shorter and traverse fewer governmental hurdles than if it ran through Canada.

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Much of the debate in Alaska focused on oil’s environmental impact on the oil field sites themselves and on the path of the pipeline over the fragile tundra, earthquake belts and rugged terrain.

Promises From Washington

But tankers pose a statistically greater pollution risk than pipelines, and fears of a marine oil spill in the biologically rich waters below Valdez were raised early by environmentalists.

That brought promises by Interior Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton of a dedicated Alaskan tanker fleet built to special standards to all but eliminate such risks.

The Arab oil embargo brought pressure on Congress to act quickly, Tussing says, and the trans-Canada pipeline route never got a full hearing because it could have taken two to six years longer. He says the whole undertaking could have been an economic disaster without the explosion of world oil prices in the late 1970s.

Meanwhile, Morton’s promises to a congressional committee were never fulfilled. The Coast Guard rejected as unnecessary the demands of environmental groups and the states of Alaska and Washington that standards be tougher for tankers passing through Prince William Sound and Puget Sound.

Meanwhile, an explosion aboard a tanker in Los Angeles and a massive tanker spill off of Nantucket in the mid-1970s triggered regulatory changes for all new and some old tankers.

Joseph Angelo, assistant chief of the Coast Guard’s merchant vessel inspection division in Washington, said the Coast Guard responded to those accidents with a series of safety proposals that were generally adopted by a 1978 convention of the International Maritime Organization.

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Those, in turn, were enacted by the U.S. Congress in the Port and Tanker Safety Act of 1978, the most recent upgrading of tanker standards under international maritime conventions.

In addition to such measures as the use of inert gases on board the tankers, improvements to steering gear and collision avoidance systems, the regulations called for segregated ballast tanks, considered one of the key improvements needed to shield the actual cargo tanks from damage in a collision.

‘Accomplished Our Goals’

A Coast Guard proposal that all tankers have double hulls--one to protect the other--was dropped by the international convention, said Angelo. But double hulls, whose advantages are a source of dispute by naval experts, are one way of satisfying the ballast requirements.

“We did not feel that the convention fell short. We felt it accomplished our goals,” Angelo said.

The regulations apply in different degrees according to the size and age of the tankers, with older vessels exempted from the ballast standard. The ballast standard applies to tankers built after 1982, according to Angelo. That includes the Valdez.

The 2 1/2-year-old, 987-foot-long Valdez is described by the Coast Guard as an up-to-date vessel that meets all the regulations imposed by the 1978 legislation. It has a double hull only beneath the engine room.

Lawmakers and Coast Guard officials investigating the Exxon accident said it is too soon to speculate on the need to tighten safety standards for tankers. The early evidence suggests human error was to blame for the spill, as it is in most tanker accidents.

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Jerry Aspland, a ship captain and president of Arco Marine Inc., which owns and operates Atlantic Richfield’s 10 Alaskan tankers, argues that the dollar cost of making the vessels impregnable to such collisions would be prohibitive.

“He might have had 290,000 tons of momentum hitting that reef. We’d need some physicist to tell us how much energy that is,” said Aspland.

Sailors still argue over the pluses and minuses of double hulls, which are said to be a disadvantage in the case of a deep puncture and an advantage if the vessel runs aground on a generally flat surface. This suggests the Valdez was better off without a full double bottom.

Lack of Uniformity

Two of the 10 Arco tankers have double-bottom hulls, and Aspland says he wishes one of them had been in Port Angeles in the Puget Sound on Dec. 21, 1985, when another Arco vessel ran aground and spilled 6,000 barrels of oil.

“She rolled herself easily over a rock, and I’m convinced if we’d had a double-bottom we wouldn’t have lost any oil,” he said. “But if we’d hit something dead ahead and tore it open, a double bottom would have put us in a worse position.”

Aspland says the lack of uniformity in tanker design resulting from the large number of ship builders around the world--in contrast to the airline industry and its handful of manufacturers--probably works against tanker safety.

Still, like most in the oil industry, Aspland considers the environmental record for Alaskan oil to be “phenomenal.” But in describing the lesson of the Exxon incident, he makes the same point as environmentalists who argue against the tanker alternative.

“It says that no matter what we do with technology or regulations, it still comes back to one thing: the human beings involved,” he said.

Valdez fishermen rushed to protect valuable salmon hatcheries from the fast-moving Exxon oil slick Tuesday while cleanup crews faced the daunting task of washing fouled islands by hand. Part I, Page 1.


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