Knowles wants more money for oil, gas oversight

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

Gov. Tony Knowles wants $4.8 million more to strengthen oversight of Alaska's aging oil facilities and streamline new oil and gas exploration.

The governor outlined a plan on Wednesday to ask the Legislature for $3.7 million to add 30 staff positions to the six state agencies that oversee the industries. Another $1.1 million would be raised from fees paid by oil and gas companies, he said.

The request comes amid growing concern from oil industry critics and Congress over safety at the North Slope oil production facilities. Testing over a 16-month period on surface safety valves recently showed an excessive rate of failures.

Knowles wants more state inspections but said "this is not a 'gotcha-based' environment effort," adding he wants to decrease the backlog in leasing and permitting.

"We have to get out of the paperwork business and get into the field," Knowles said.

The initiative would add 17 new positions within the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, state agencies primarily charged with inspecting oil and gas operations. Another 10 positions would be added to the agencies by contractual services under the proposal.

The departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Game, Labor and Public Safety would also see staffing increases. And DEC would open a new North Slope field office to increase air and water quality testing and conduct oil spill response drills.

Chuck Hamel, a spokesman for BP workers and a frequent critic of the industry, said the plan demonstrates shortcomings in the state's oversight of the industry.

Hamel said he is considering filing a lawsuit to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assume control of monitoring the North Slope operations.

"The state oversight is sorely lacking. The companies are able to operate in darkness up there," Hamel said.

Earlier this year, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. ordered a wide-ranging review of safety, maintenance and environmental protection at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields following workers' concerns.

The company, which operates the North Slope fields with Phillips as part of a consortium that includes Exxon Mobil Corp., planned to spend $150 million to boost maintenance and install new fire suppression systems.

BP has had some discussions with the Knowles administration about his plans but has not reviewed the proposal, said spokesman Ronnie Chappell. Meanwhile, he said the company has begun making improvements in its systems.

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