THE somber picture of the Exxon Valdez impaled on a reef leaking millions of gallons of oil has prompted Congress to consider tighter construction and licensing requirements on tankers and tanker operators. But these concerns are likely to broaden as Congress debates the issue, because barges operating in United States waters have had more large spills than tankers and they transport 40 percent of the petroleum and petroleum products in and around the country.
``We don't anticipate Congress will stop at tankers,'' says a spokesman for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), which represents barge operators. ``Tank barges will come under the same scrutiny as tankers.''
The AWO's executive board met earlier this month and decided, among other things, to review its licensing requirements for the vessels that tow barges and ask the US government to put the equivalent of air-traffic-control systems in the nation's busiest harbors. ``The Exxon Valdez disaster is making us take a fresh look at our licensing requirements,'' the spokesman said. The group completed just such a review last year. But the AWO wants to make sure ``we didn't miss anything.''
Clearly aimed at making sure they are considered responsible players in the oil-spill debate, the barge operators' actions may be justified. Coast Guard statistics show that from 1984 through 1988, oil tankers accounted for 15 oil spills of more than 100,000 barrels. For the same period, barges accounted for 24 spills of that size. There were 16 spills of between 10,000 and 100,000 barrels caused by tankers, while barge spills of the same magnitude totaled 40. Although concerned about safety, barge operators are cautioning people not to read too much into these statistics. Though barges may have had more spills, government and industry officials note the barge fleet is almost 20 times the size of the tanker fleet. Currently, the US barge fleet totals 4,000. The US registered tanker fleet has 200 ships.
Statistics from the Army Corps of Engineers suggest barge operators have maintained a steady volumetric share of the crude oil market, at about 200 million tons annually from 1974 through 1987. On the other hand, the growth of oil pipelines in the last 20 years have shrunk the tankers' share of the market more than that of barges, notes Sean Connaughton, who tracks marine transportation issues for the American Petroleum Institute.
Part of the debate in Congress has been on new standards for tanker construction, with an old idea - double hulls - being revived as a possible safeguard against oil spills. Under legislation pending in the Senate, the Transportation Department would have the discretion to require tankers to have double hulls.
There are differing opinions on the effectiveness of double hulls - the issue has been debated for more than a decade. But it may be largely irrelevant. No new US-flag tankers have been built in the last five years. The last tankers contracted for construction were the Exxon Valdez and its sister ship, the Longbeach, in 1984.
Furthermore, the need for more tankers in domestic trade may be dwindling. The American Petroleum Institute says that about 60 vessels ply the oil trade between the Alaskan North Slope and the West Coast. But oil production is decreasing there. The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration projects that Alaskan production will decline to 1.88 million barrels a day in 1990 from 2.02 million barrels a day in 1988.
``There will be a decreasing demand for tanker tonnage,'' says Douglas Wolcott, president of Chevron Shipping Co., referring to the declining Alaskan production. ``I don't see demand to encourage US flag ships.''
The US is approaching the point where oil imports will account for 50 percent of domestic consumption. That oil is coming into the US by tanker, but predominantly by tankers flying foreign flags. Oil industry officials and vessel owners say it is highly questionable whether the US would impose unilaterally stricter construction standards.
``It could start a trade war,'' says one oil industry official.