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Lifting the crude oil export ban would magnify already substantial ship traffic risks off Alaska’s coastline

Posted Mar. 24, 2014 / Posted by: John Kaltenstein

The Aleutian Islands—an archipelago stretching for over a thousand miles from the coast of southeast Alaska towards the far east of Russia—is remote and ruggedly beautiful terrain. Its shores and surrounding marine waters, including the Bering Sea, provide key habitat for abundant seabird colonies, endangered Steller sea lions, and Pacific cod spawning groundsSubsistence fishing and hunting by Alaska Natives also occur in this expanse. Despite the region’s important cultural significance and remarkable ecological features, it is subject to a massive amount of vessel traffic—primarily at Unimak Pass, a relatively narrow opening in the Chain. Each year about 2,500 to 3,500 vessels, mainly container ships and bulk carriers, transit through the Aleutians at Unimak Pass on their way to Asia from North America along the North Pacific Great Circle Route. The weather around the Aleutian Islands is almost constantly foggy and storms, particularly in winter, can be intense. Because of the treacherous navigational and ocean conditions shipping casualties do occur off the Aleutian Chain, most of which is part of the State of Alaska. One of the most well-known vessel incidents in the Aleutians was in 2004 when the Selendang Ayu grounded, broke up and sank resulting in the death of six crew members. In addition, the ship spilled more than 350,000 gallons of bunker fuel and diesel oil, blanketing near shore areas with oil and killing hundreds of birds and several sea otters.  

In light of the Selendang Ayu tragedy, shipping activity along the Aleutian Islands has faced increased scrutiny. The Aleutian Island Risk Assessment, or AIRA, process was commenced in 2009, funded by a $3 million plea agreement with the ship owner, to identify mitigation measures for shipping in and around the region. This multi-year process, replete with sophisticated technical analyses, is entering its final year, and specific recommendations are being developed. It remains to be seen, however, which, if any, shipping mitigation measures will be acted upon, and what level of risk reduction will eventually be attained.  

The AIRA process is culminating at a time when fossil fuel (e.g. coal, liquefied natural gas, tar sands and Bakken shale) terminal expansion projects are being proposed up and down the coasts of British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest and even California. If all, or even some, of these proposals are implemented, oil tanker and bulk carrier traffic through the region would grow precipitously, and many, if not most, of these vessels would be destined for Asia—in order to meet robust demand for energy resources—and thus pass through the Aleutian Chain. The infographic that Friends of the Earth produced with Healthy Planet/Healthy People illustrates that an additional 3,000 vessels related to proposed fossil fuel export facilities will be added to Pacific Northwest waters annually, with many likely bound for Asia via the Aleutians. In effect, the amount of traffic through Unimak Pass has the potential to double if all of these export projects occur.

The ramping up in traffic in those ship categories would elevate the likelihood of a spill in the Aleutian region, above and beyond present-day risk levels, which are already substantial. While many people are aware of the risks that an oil tanker presents in light of the Exxon Valdez, accidents involving fuel tank breaches of enormous vessels carrying coal and other bulk commodities can also be devastating, as these ships hold large quantities of bunker oil in their fuel tanks

As if this were not enough cause for concern, the Aleutian Islands could be exposed to even greater levels of oil tanker traffic, and attendant environmental risk, if Senator Murkowski and others get their way in lifting the decades-old U.S. crude export ban. The ban has been in place since the 1970s, but U.S. domestic oil production, such as from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, is booming, prompting its reconsideration. The move would dramatically expand outbound tanker movements from the lower 48, with potentially a significant portion of the west coast vessel activity traversing the Aleutians on its way to Asian ports. 

The Aleutian Islands are not prepared to deal with greater vessel traffic and corresponding increases in oil spill risk. The regulatory framework as it currently stands is insufficient, and there is no guarantee that the AIRA’s risk reduction measures will get implemented in a timely manner, or at all. In light of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, measures were enacted for Prince William Sound that made it one of the safest tanker delivery systems in the world. Unfortunately, ships voyaging through Unimak Pass do not have to abide by standards similar to what are imposed in the Sound post Exxon Valdez (e.g. double tug escorts)—and foreign-flagged vessels need not comply with U.S. rules even while sailing through our waters if those ships aren’t departing or arriving from a U.S. port (i.e. Prince Rupert, B.C. to Yokohama, Japan).

The way some industry representatives and politicians are speaking about increased coal and tar sands shipments and doing away with the crude oil export ban, one would think that we had forgotten any lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill. Without the proper safeguards in place, expanded commercial ship traffic through the Aleutians and Unimak Pass is reckless and irresponsible. Haven’t we learned our lesson? The Exxon Valdez disaster wasn’t that long ago—nor the Selendang Ayu tragedy.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
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