By Jenny Neyman
Given the myriad risk factors of an oil spill that a new Cook Inlet marine transportation study will be considering, the wonder isn’t the danger that spills could occur, it’s the fact that there haven’t been more of them.
“We’ve been very lucky,” said Tim Robertson of Nuka Research and Planning, which is facilitating the study. “Any of these kind of catastrophic or very serious oil spills are very low frequency events, and we’ve just been lucky that we haven’t had a serious incident. All of the parts and pieces are here for a very serious type of accident.”
The level of risk of an oil spill is a product of frequency and consequence, Robertson said — how much opportunity there is for a problem and how significant the damages could be. In Cook Inlet, both factors are great.
“We have significant vessel traffic,” he said. “We have a number of large ships that come in, including crude oil tankers and oil product tankers. We have the very large, very fast container ships that are essentially our supply line in Alaska. We have a number of smaller bulk carriers that haul fishery or forest products, and intermixed with all this other traffic are tugs and barges and fishing vessels.”
Large or small, quick or plodding, carrying environmentally hazardous products as cargo or just as fuel, each of those vessels faces significant navigational challenges in Cook Inlet.
“We have tremendous tides, and currents that are driven by the tides, that make navigation difficult in Cook Inlet,” Robertson said. “We’ve got a lot of shoal waters, waters that are shallow so a ship has to be very careful to be in their channels, not like some other places where it’s broad and deep. We have the ice season in the wintertime, which is really the only major port in North America that deals with significant ice accumulations in the wintertime. And we also have a lot of darkness and periods of obscured visibility. All those things are risk factors.”
If there is a spill, the possible environmental damage is great — world-class fish runs, federally protected beluga whales, migratory birds and sea life. And what’s being hauled isn’t the only danger. The fuel required to do the hauling would also be hazardous if spilled into the inlet.
“It’s not just looking at the cargo being crude oil. Even if the vessel is carrying something benign, like pingpong balls, if there’s an incident it still has its own fuel source on-board. There is a risk of danger regardless of the cargo,” said Jerry Rombach, director of public outreach for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council.
In the past three decades, there’s only been one significant spill in Cook Inlet — when the tanker Glacier Bay ran aground on a large submerged rack on July 2, 1987, and spilled 207,000 gallons of oil. And there’s been one recent major close call, on Feb. 2, 2006, when an ice floe tore the tanker Seabulk Pride lose from the KPL dock in Nikiski and pushed it aground about a half mile up the beach.
Overall, Cook Inlet’s record of oil spills is relatively unfouled, particularly considering the amount of vessel traffic and the navigational hazards that exist. The point of a maritime transportation risk assessment of Cook Inlet currently being launched is to keep that record clean.
“There haven’t been many incidents but there have been a few and it only really takes one. It gets people thinking about the risks involved in maritime navigation, and especially with our oil production and oil shipping in the inlet, it is even more necessary that we take a look to determine if our navigation needs warrant any additional oversight,” Rombach said.
CIRCAC is partnering with the Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct the assessment. It is a federal requirement added by Congress to the reauthorization of the Coast Guard in 2010 that such an assessment be done, prompted in part by the Seabulk Pride incident, and even more so by the Selendang Ayu incident in 2004, when the cargo freighter ran aground off the coast of Unalaska and spilled an estimated 350,000 gallons of bunker oil and diesel.
A marine transportation risk assessment has already been conducted for the Aleutian Islands region, and now it’s Cook Inlet’s turn. Nuka Research, based in Seldovia, was contracted to facilitate the process, as it did for the Aleutians project and has done for the Alaska DEC in assessing risks of land-based oil spills statewide.
The study is expected to cost under $2 million, Rombach said, with about $430,000 being secured so far.
“We know we’ve still got fundraising to do, but this gets us about a fourth of the way to where we need to be. It’s enough that we can get a big part of it under way,” Rombach said.
The project will include three phases. The first is to assess current vessel traffic in Cook Inlet and project what traffic will be like over the coming 10 years.
“It looks at what types of vessels are here, what kind of cargo are they carrying, how much fuel they have on board, what kinds of fuel they have on board, what routes they take, that sort of thing,” Robertson said.
An initial Cook Inlet marine traffic analysis was completed in 2006, so this will be an update of existing data. It’s likely to show an increase in traffic, Rombach said, especially with increased oil and gas exploration activity, such as the arrival of Escopeta’s Spartan jack-up rig, and the expected addition of another jack-up rig from Buccaneer Energy this winter.
“We tend to think that there’s a higher level of activity in the inlet. Some of that might be wishful thinking, but some smart people are saying there’s a lot of oil left in the inlet. We’re not fortune tellers, we don’t know what might happen with the gas pipeline coming to Nikiski, but we just think all signs point toward a greater level of activity in the inlet and we want to be prepared,” Rombach said.
Next will be taking that 10-year projection and estimating what potential accidents could occur, given that traffic. A panel of experts will review those two reports to analyze what impacts may occur if those accidents were to happen.
“Where would oil go if it ended up in the inlet? They would do a trajectory analysis. And experts from natural resource agencies might estimate what would get oiled if these spills occurred. It gives us the consequences,” Robertson said.
An advisory panel representing various stakeholder groups and agencies will monitor these phases, then take all the resulting information and come to a consensus on recommendations to submit to the Coast Guard that would increase vessel safety and decrease the risk of spills in the inlet.
“At the end of it, we will have this risk picture. They’ll look at it and say, ‘OK, these are the things we can do to reduce the risk — either reduce the frequency of the accidents or the severity or the consequences of the accidents,” Robertson said.
The recommendations could be simple or complex. Some of the suggestions from the Aleutians advisory panel in the wake of the Selendang Ayu spill, for example, were for the Coast Guard to keep specialized equipment on-board and to have different vessels available to respond immediately to an incident.
“Some might be fulfilled just by the Coast Guard tweaking how it operates. Some others might require new regulations, so that you’d have a whole new regulatory process that would kick in that would include public comments and writing new regulations and rules and so forth,” Rombach said. “We really don’t know where this will take us, but some of it could be quickly implemented, some other suggestions might take longer to implement.”
Rombach said the advisory panel will operate as independently from the management team as possible, even to the point that some of its recommendations may not be exactly what the steering agencies would like to see result from the process.
“We (CIRCAC) would like to see (a requirement for) double-hulled vessels, for example. But the recommendation might be that, based on the hazards that are identified and the traffic patterns that are projected, the panel may say, ‘We don’t think that’s necessary.’ So we know that there might be some undesirable recommendations (from what CIRCAC may prefer) that might come out of this, and we’re prepared for that.”
Currently, applicants are being sought to serve on the advisory panel, with one panelist and one alternate from 12 identified stakeholder categories, including Cook Inlet ports and harbors; land and natural resource managers; Alaska Native Tribes and subsistence users; nongovernmental organizations; the fishing industry; mariners in local trades, including tugs and barges, container ships and tank vessels; marine salvage and rescue tug operators; marine pilots; and oil platform or mobile drilling platform operators.
Panelists will be appointed as individuals, not representatives of a company or organization, and will be selected based on their knowledge of local infrastructure, relevant industries, waterways, navigation, weather, habitat and area use.
“I consider this our key to success is seating a good advisory panel. We’re looking for folks with knowledge of their stakeholder group, willing to come to the table and learn. Our experience with this process is everyone has something to teach everyone else,” Robertson said.
The deadline for submitting an application to serve on the advisory panel is Aug. 26. The application can be downloaded on the risk assessment website, http://www.cookinletriskassessment.com. Completed forms can be emailed to CIRAapplicants@nukaresearch.com or faxed to 240-368-7467. Notification of the selections is expected by Sept. 1, with the first panel meeting slated for Sept. 12 in Anchorage.
For more information on the risk assessment, including all relevant documents, schedules and contacts that will be updated as the process continues, visit www.cookinletriskassessment.com.
As this process begins, Rombach cautions Cook Inlet residents to realize that it takes more than good luck to avoid oil spills.
“Particularly in a place like Cook Inlet, and particularly with the nature of the cargo largely being gas or oil, that just almost screams for this attention to be given to navigational hazards. We would like to think that the shippers in Cook Inlet, the oil processors and operators, the oversight of our organization and the presence of an outfit like (Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response), that we are as prepared as any place on Earth for an incident of almost any kind,” he said. “This is just one more piece of the puzzle that hopefully, when the effort is all said and done, we will have a product and set of recommendations that will take us even further than other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, in preparedness.”