Citizen panel idea gaining momentum

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The idea of forming a citizen panel to oversee the trans-Alaska oil pipeline is gaining momentum.

A citizen group, the Prince William Sound Regional Advisory Citizens' Council that monitors oil tanker traffic out of Valdez, has voiced support for a new pipeline panel.

Six oil companies that own the 800-mile line are in the midst of a process in which they're asking government regulators to renew their right of way across vast state and federal lands.

The owners, who operate the pipeline through an Anchorage-based consortium called Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., oppose a new citizen panel. They say the 13 federal and state regulatory agencies provide ample scrutiny and give citizens plenty of opportunity to know about and steer the pipe's operation.

The owners are asking for a 30-year right-of-way renewal, and regulators have tentatively recommended granting it.

The regulators have just wrapped up a series of public hearings on the issue. They will consider oral and written testimony that could change the terms for continued operation of the pipeline.

The citizen panel would be funded by the oil industry and could be similar to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, required by Congress after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak, testifying at a hearing on Friday in Barrow, said many are uncomfortable with a lease renewal as long as 30 years. Forming a new citizen committee could ease some worries, he said.

Steve Jones, manager of Alyeska's right-of-way renewal effort, said the pipeline owners aren't opposed to public oversight, but they don't care to spend money and add more costs to doing business in Alaska ''without adding any discernible value.''

If the Prince William Sound advisory council is any indication, a new citizen panel likely would cost the oil industry millions of dollars. The Sound council has a $2.8 million budget, almost all of it paid by the oil industry, spokesman Stan Jones said.

It has made recommendations that cost the industry much greater sums, such as adding powerful tanker escort tugs and vapor capture equipment at tanker berths in Valdez.

Still, he said the state estimates the North Slope will produce $7.9 billion worth of oil this year, making oversight panels a minor expense.

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