THIS IS A DRILL — Polar Tankers demonstrates readiness, resolve

Photo: Incident response team members review spill trajectory maps on the situation status board to direct mobilization of resources.

by Daren Beaudo 

The little town of Valdez, Alaska is the end of the line for the state’s most important natural resource: North Slope crude. The oil that is produced more than 800 miles to the north reaches its final departure point, the cargo tanks of million-barrel double-hulled tankers that will carry it to U.S. West Coast refineries or elsewhere in the world.

Given the scars that still exist from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, through which every drop of exportable product must travel, it makes perfect sense that every year shippers are required to demonstrate to regulators that they can respond to a spill. It’s not an easy test to pass, and it shouldn’t be.

All hands were on deck the week of Oct. 2-6 in the Valdez Civic Center to prove that ConocoPhillips, through its wholly owned subsidiary Polar Tankers, has the ability to partner with local response organizations, work with regulators and stakeholders, and mobilize the necessary resources to effectively respond to a significant spill. This was the sixth Prince William Sound drill over the company’s 20-plus years of tanker operations.

The drill scenario centered around a collision by a tug and barge with the fictional Polar Intrepid. The collision simulated a release of 241,000 barrels of crude into the sound and monitored how the Alyeska Pipeline Services Company and its Ship Escort/Response Vessel System would swing into action to mobilize the people and materials necessary to properly respond to the incident.

As in a real situation, Alyeska manages spill response until Polar Tankers can transition response capabilities and form a unified command with federal, state and local on-scene coordinators. One key goal in the drill was handling that critical transitional period so that spill response would be seamless.

large map, foreground, people on laptops
Old-school flat map technology is still effective at tracking the armada of spill response equipment available to shippers during a major spill response.

The goal for the exercise was to conduct an incident management team (IMT) exercise based on the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP) with a focus on IMT planning and coordination over a 36-hour period.

In addition to meeting federal PREP objectives, ConocoPhillips/Polar Tankers also sought and received California and Washington out-of-state annual spill management team exercise and Worst Case Discharge determination.

“Although our goal is to never be involved in an incident, it is clearly necessary to have in place pre-established response plans and relationships with the agencies, experts and the local community long before they are needed,” said Chris Bulera, manager, Global Marine & Polar Tankers. “This drill allowed us to develop those vital relationships and demonstrate our ability to respond to a worst-case discharge through implementation of our response plans.

“The team received the highest accolades from state and federal agencies for the level of planning and performance. Our success was largely due to well-trained ConocoPhillips employees who hold key roles within the incident command organization, sharing our SPIRIT Values and a strong commitment to protecting the communities and environments in which we operate.”

To show just how seriously the company takes the responsibility of executing a best-possible response, more than 97 company personnel were mobilized to Valdez to staff the roles they would hold during a real event. In addition, eight regulators were involved, along with the U.S Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Valdez and Prince William Sound stakeholder community representatives. Drill planning took more than nine months and involved personnel from Polar Tankers, ConocoPhillips Crisis Management & Emergency Response, federal and state officials and crisis response specialty consultants.