Oil transportation in Rosario Strait Gets Safety Boost

San Juan County– A new measure to improve oil transportation safety will be implemented tomorrow in Puget Sound’s Rosario Strait, a critical habitat for the 72 whales of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale community. 

A tugboat capable of assisting disabled oil tankers will be required to escort laden oil barges, articulated tug barges (ATBs) (see Resources) and small oil tankers between 5,000-40,000 deadweight tons (dwt) through Rosario Strait. Since 1975 Laden oil tankers larger than 40,000 dwt have been required to have tug escorts East of Sequim (RCW Title 88 Chapter 88.16 Section 88.16.170).

This safety measure is the result of successful legislation from 2019: ESHB 1578, Reducing Threats to Southern Resident Killer Whales by Improving the Safety of Oil Transportation. ESHB 1578 only requires these smaller vessels to have tug escorts when filled with oil in Rosario Strait – about half the number of transits given they usually return to the four North Sound refineries empty to be refilled. The legislation also applies to a few smaller refined oil tankers that were not subject to the tug escort requirement.

“Commercial vessels don’t need assistance often, but if they are not responded to quickly it can result in a catastrophic oil spill that can last decades and render our endangered orca extinct,” said Fred Felleman, NW Consultant to Friends of the Earth and Port of Seattle Commissioner. “We greatly appreciate the legislature’s leadership by filling a major safety gap in the state’s oil spill prevention regime. The increasing use of ATBs since 2010 and series of significant incidents and oil spills involving barges and ATBs in the region has more than justified the added protection they are now being afforded.”

As a result of the passage of this legislation each year, ATBs and barges carrying a total of 3 billion gallons of oil through the environmentally rich and vulnerable Rosario Strait, characterized by narrow shipping lanes and swift currents most oil carrying vessels in transit, will be afforded the additional protection of tug escorts with trained crews that can keep them from grounding if they lose power or steering. The tugs will also be available to help other vessels on an opportunistic basis if an unescorted vessel needs assistance.

This new safety measure means an additional 245 oil laden barges and 302 oil laden ATBs will be escorted by a tug annually—which translates to 1.5 tug escorted barges added to the 1 tug escorted tanker transit daily in Rosario Strait. The Board of Pilotage Commissioners interpreted the legislative intent to exclude all oil barges engaged in bunkering (fueling) operations (187) resulting in 43% of 432 laden oil barge transits through Rosario Strait being exempt from the escort requirement. 

The most common ATBs used in Washington waters carry between 6.5 and 7.5 million gallons of refined oil.  The most common barges subject to this rule carry approximately 3.6 million gallons of heavy crude oil from the Alberta oil sands deposits which are then transported through the Trans Mountain pipeline from Burnaby, British Columbia and exported through Rosario Strait to the Par Pacific (formerly US Oil) refinery in Tacoma.

Communications contact: Aisha Dukule, [email protected], (202) 893-3502
Expert contacts: Fred Felleman, (206) 595-3825
Marcie Keever, [email protected], (415) 999-3992

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