Unions protest as Chouest gets Alaska tanker escort contract


The leaders of two maritime unions say that a 10-year contract to escort oil tankers in Alaska’s Prince William Sound was unfairly awarded to the Louisiana-based company Edison Chouest Offshore.

Crowley Marine Services, a division of Florida-based Crowley Maritime Corp., currently runs the ship escort and spill prevention operation for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. Crowley has held the contract since 1990 and has provided tanker docking services for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline since 1977. In August, Alyeska awarded the Prince William Sound contract to Chouest, effective July 2018.

Union leaders said Crowley has done an excellent job with no major oil tanker incidents during its tenure. The contract arose after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and a subsequent federal law that requires every full oil tanker traveling through the sound to be escorted by two tugboats.

“Our intent here is to express dismay at this decision and the fact that it was made with, as far as we can tell, zero vetting,” said Donald Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). “If they pull the plug there ought to be a documented reason for doing it.”

“It is a betrayal of the work and effort and professionalism of our members and workers who have been at this for the past 25 years,” said Alan Cote, president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union. “To pull the rug out from under them is totally unacceptable.” About 230 workers are part of the ship escort service and belong to one of the two unions, with 38 percent of them Alaska residents.

Michelle Egan, a spokeswoman for Alyeska, said Crowley’s bid for the contract was very close in terms of cost. “There was no single factor in the decision,” she said. “Edison Chouest Offshore was successful by submitting a superior package in a fair commercial process, which included significant marine experience, a solid safety and environmental record and newbuild modern equipment.”

Chouest also committed to building five new tanker escort tugs, four new general-purpose tugs for tanker docking and other activities, and three new oil spill response barges. All of the new vessels will start work July 1, 2018. The current fleet is made up of 17 vessels including escort tugs, response tugs and oil recovery barges.

A Chouest spokesman said the company would not comment on the contract, and a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said it was not the state’s job to review it. “It would be inappropriate for ADEC to weigh in on industry contractual matters,” Candice Bressler said.

Crowley said it could not provide any details about the bidding process. “We bid on this contract very aggressively and are extremely disappointed that we were not selected to retain this business,” Thomas B. Crowley Jr., chairman and chief executive officer for Crowley Maritime, said in a news release.

Egan said in late September that construction of the new escort and general-purpose tugs is already underway. Representatives from Alyeska, ADEC, the U.S. Coast Guard, Crowley, Chouest, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council have begun holding regular meetings as part of the transition process.

Union leaders believe that Chouest workers will not have the training or experience needed to work in Prince William Sound. They also are concerned that the non-union Chouest workers won’t be paid as much.

“How do they expect to replace these trained and experienced people from a different environment and with uncertain backgrounds?” Marcus said. “There is no commitment to abide by area standards or working conditions, or wages and benefits.”

Marcus said he believed Chouest would hire employees who live in Louisiana to rotate into the Alaska jobs, rather than using workers who already live in the state. “They will be little more than guest workers,” he said. However, Chouest said it is committed to employees living in Alaska.

“We believe it is critical that our employees work and live in Valdez,” Rick Fox, senior vice president and general manager of Chouest’s Alaska operations, said in a news release. “We are also committed to hiring more Alaskans and to implement an aggressive Alaska Native hire and development program in Alaska, and especially in and around Prince William Sound.”

Chouest already has a work force of 130 Alaskans that includes more than 12 percent Alaska natives, according to a company news release.

Chouest was involved in the grounding of the Shell oil rig Kulluk near Kodiak Island in December 2012. Kulluk was being towed by Aiviq, an anchor-handling tug-supply vessel built and operated by Chouest. However, Egan said that the safety and environmental records of all bidders were carefully reviewed.

“We are confident in (Chouest’s) ability to meet our requirements and we believe the company has incorporated lessons learned from incidents into their operations,” she said.

Robert Archibald, who worked for 15 years as an engineer on Nanuq, one of Crowley’s Alaska tugs, said Chouest should be able to get good mariners for the job. However, it will be difficult for a new company to take over the contract, he said.

“They have a lot of hurdles to jump over and they know it,” Archibald said about Chouest. “The biggest thing is their training time and how they are going to do it — whether they’ll have a long period of time to assimilate into that system and realize how they operate.”

By Professional Mariner Staff