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Alaska's Murkowski, Begich push for federal oil tanker towing law

The Exxon tanker that briefly lost power in state waters Sunday while carrying more than 25 million gallons of crude oil has quickly become a poster child for pending federal legislation to beef up protection for Prince William Sound oil shipments.

Two tugs escorting the 832-foot SeaRiver Kodiak through the Sound towed it to safety on Sunday morning. The tanker now is en route to San Francisco.

The towing was precautionary, said Joel Kennedy, maritime operations project manager for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. The tanker remained on course during its 30 minutes without power -- never losing control of its steering system -- and had just exited the Sound when the tugs took control, Kennedy said.

All the same, the advisory council and an Alaska U.S. senator pointed at the incident as a reason why the Sound's tanker escort system — bolstered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in the Sound — should not be sacrificed. Some fear corporate cost-cutting will undermine the expensive tug escorts as the amount of oil piped from the North Slope to Valdez declines.

"With more than 25 million gallons of oil on board (the Kodiak), a vessel grounding in the inclement weather could have been catastrophic," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

She and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, last year introduced a bill requiring all tankers in the Sound to be escorted by at least two towing vessels. Right now, that requirement is part of the Sound's spill-contingency plans, but it isn't mandated in federal law.

On Monday, Murkowski called on the U.S. Senate to pass the legislation, which has already been approved by the House of Representatives.

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