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Citizen oversight of North Slope pushed


September 15, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Creation of a citizens council to act as a watchdog over North Slope oil fields is an idea that seems to be gaining momentum in Alaska and in Washington, D.C.

Congress has been holding hearings on pipeline leaks and the partial shutdown of Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field.





Critics have flayed Prudhoe's operator, London oil giant BP, for lax pipeline maintenance practices that allowed corrosion to chew holes through key pipelines, releasing crude oil onto the tundra. BP and federal regulators have promised better operations and stricter rules, and federal criminal investigators are probing an estimated 201,000-gallon crude spill in March.

Now industry critics are calling for something longer term to try to prevent future spills.

A citizens council could keep an eye on not only the oil companies operating fields on the Slope but also government agencies that are supposed to vigorously regulate the industry, council advocates say.

"There has been a failure at all levels to oversee this industry," said Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage attorney representing national environmental and public policy groups.

Van Tuyn, testifying Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, advocated formation of a citizens council, funded by the oil industry, to watch over the North Slope oil patch as well as the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Such a council would not be unique.

Two citizens councils already exist - one to monitor the Valdez tanker port in Prince William Sound and another to scrutinize tanker operations in Cook Inlet.

Both these councils were created in the wake of the 1989 wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez, which spilled almost 11 million gallons of oil into the Sound. Congress mandated the citizens councils in 1990.

Industry critics long have wanted a citizens council to watch the trans-Alaska pipeline, as well as the expansive North Slope oil fields, but they said the industry as well as government agencies resisted.

The last big push for a new citizens council came in 2002, when BP and the other owners of the trans-Alaska pipeline applied for and received a new 30-year right of way for the line, which crosses mostly state and federal land. Regulators declined to require establishment of a new citizens council as a condition of the right-of-way renewal.

The recent pipeline leaks on the North Slope provide new impetus for Congress to mandate citizens councils to watch over both the pipeline and the oil fields, Van Tuyn said. He'd like to see it happen this year.

"This would be a great, bipartisan thing to close out a session with," he said.


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Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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