Norton against citizen oversight of pipeline

By SAM BISHOP News-Miner Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON--Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said Tuesday that a new citizens' council to oversee the trans-Alaska oil pipeline is unnecessary.

Norton expressed her view during an interview session with regional reporters from around the nation Tuesday morning.

Some groups want a citizens' council created as a condition for renewing the pipeline's rights of way across federal and state lands.

The rights of way expire in January 2004 and oil companies that own the line have applied to extend their use for another 30 years.

Norton, whose agency manages about half the land crossed by the pipeline, said she hadn't seen the need for a new council as part of the renewal.

"What I've heard from the Interior (Department) people in Alaska is that the new proposal duplicates some of things we're already doing with public input," Norton said. "They feel that working through the existing processes would be better than creating a new process."

The pipeline is currently overseen by the Joint Pipeline Office, a collaborative effort by six federal and seven state agencies. The Anchorage-based office coordinates agency comments on pipelines and issues right-of-way leases and other permits. It maintains detailed public records of pipeline operations.

The Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, which follows pipeline operational issues, said the JPO is too tolerant of the line's shortcomings.

The group wants a council similar to the group Congress created to watch over tanker and terminal operations in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the line's operator, covers about $2.5 million of the Prince William Sound Citizens Advisory Council's $3.2 million budget.

A draft environmental impact statement on the federal right-of-way renewal, issued in early July, said the government would prefer to extend the pipeline right of way for another 30 years.

None of the alternatives in the draft document proposed a new citizens' council for the pipeline, though.

Joint Pipeline Office spokesmen said earlier this summer that the government already keeps a close eye on the line.

Steve Jones, director of right-of-way renewal for the pipeline owners in Anchorage, also said this summer that existing government oversight is thorough.

The Bureau of Land Management, the lead federal agency on the environmental review, would have to state a reason if it wanted to change the right-of-way grant, Jones said, but it might be difficult to justify another level of oversight.

"The JPO has day-to-day access to all of our people and facilities and records, and their records in turn are public," Jones said. "It doesn't really add anything to us except cost."

Nevertheless, Jones said, the owners do not oppose the citizens' council proposal.

The BLM has contracted with Argonne National Laboratories in Illinois to write the environmental impact statement. Public comment on the draft version ended last month. The final version is due in November. BLM hopes to issue a new federal grant by December.

The state, which owns the other half of land crossed by the line, in July also issued a draft decision to renew the line's lease. Public comment on that decision has also closed.