News: Anchorage Daily News, September 17, 2002, p. A-1

State joins feds in opposing pipeline watchdog group
POURCHOT: Resources chief says panel wouldn't improve regulation much.

By Wesley Loy
The idea of forming a citizens group as a watchdog over operations of the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline appears dead.

Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Pat Pourchot said Monday he opposes the idea because it would not appreciably improve existing regulatory oversight of the pipeline. This comes a week after his federal counterpart, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, expressed similar sentiments.

Pourchot and Norton are the top state and federal officials who later this year are expected to sign off on a 30-year renewal of the pipeline right of way over state and federal lands between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez.

In recent months, the idea of a new citizen group to monitor the line has sifted to the top of a heap of ideas for improving pipeline safety and maintenance over the pipeline's remaining life.

Pourchot said he has faith that the line is closely watched by the Joint Pipeline Office, an Anchorage-based coalition of seven state and six federal regulatory agencies that monitor all aspects of pipeline operation, from engineering to impact on wildlife.

Supporters of a citizen review panel say it would provide needed upcountry oversight akin to that provided by the nonprofit Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, which watches over the Valdez tanker port. The supporters say additional oversight is needed more than ever now that the 25-year-old pipeline is showing significant age.

But Pourchot said a new citizen review panel likely would burn $2 million to $3 million in oil company money for little benefit over what the JPO provides.

"It's not a shoestring deal," Pourchot said of the JPO. "It's not a superficial effort. It's a comprehensive, ongoing monitoring, inspection and enforcement program. They employ engineers and people who look at complex systems."

The JPO has the power to issue work orders to the pipeline's six oil company owners and routinely does, he said.

If citizens want more input in JPO activities, one way to do it might be to better publicize the agency's executive committee meetings and possibly hold them at different locations around the state, Pourchot said. Meetings of the executive committee, made up of top officials from member JPO agencies, make time available for public comment, he said.

The pipeline, which carries 1 million barrels of crude oil and liquid gas a day, crosses 344 miles of state land and 376 miles of federal land. Rights of way are to expire in early 2004, but government officials have committed to renewal by the end of the year.

Pourchot said he definitely will sign off for the state by noon Dec. 2, when the administration of Gov. Tony Knowles ends.

John Devens, executive director of the Prince William Sound citizen council, said he's disappointed that Pourchot and Norton don't support a new citizen panel even though scores of people in right-of-way renewal hearings this summer requested it.

"For them to say the government knows more than the citizens is certainly not very smart," said Devens, who was mayor of Valdez at the time of the Exxon oil spill in 1989.

Citizens sometimes have different priorities than regulators, Devens said. As examples, he said his group was key in getting new systems installed at the port to capture dangerous petroleum vapors. And currently it is studying invasive species riding into the Sound on tankers.

If regulators don't require a new citizen panel for the pipeline, it's possible either Congress or the pipeline owners themselves could do it, Devens said.