By WESLEY LOY
Anchorage Daily News
August 10, 2006
Oil managed to escape from one of the holes, creating a pool of up to 210 gallons on the summer-green tundra before field workers spotted and stopped the leak early Sunday.
The other holes were discovered after workers for BP, the British oil giant that runs Prudhoe, stripped off insulation and a metal jacket that wrap the above-ground pipe on the eastern side of the oil field. The wrappings blocked leaks from more of the holes.
Repairs crews have temporarily patched all the holes, each smaller than a peanut, state officials said.
There are good odds the pipeline has further breaches. BP managers said the pipe was tested in late July with a device called a smart pig, an electronic probe that slides through pipes looking for thin spots in the steel walls.
That report contained alarming results for BP - indications of 16 anomalies, each a potential hole. BP crews were checking out these spots over the weekend when they noticed oil leaking onto the tundra, prompting top BP executives to order a complete shutdown of Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field.
The action spooked the energy-strained country, bumping up crude prices and unleashing a torrent of accusations that BP had invited the shutdown by failing to properly clean and test the pipes.
BP has not yet completed the slow, tedious job of shutting down Prudhoe's hundreds of wells. Only the eastern side of the field was idle as of Wednesday night, roughly halving Prudhoe's average daily production of 400,000 barrels.
Federal and state regulators were working with BP on a plan to possibly keep the western side of the field running, once pipelines on that side are closely inspected and deemed safe to operate.
Gov. Frank Murkowski put his natural resources commissioner, Mike Menge, in charge of a state team that's working with federal pipeline regulators and BP managers to try to restore and maintain as much Prudhoe production as possible.
"All the right people are in the same room looking at it," Menge said.
BP executives have acknowledged that the company's pipeline care was inadequate. It failed to clean sedimentary sludge out of key lines and inspect them more often with smart pigs.
But the problem isn't that simple, BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said.
Sunday's spill, as well as a much larger one discovered in early March, involved pipelines known as transit lines. These pipes are major trunk lines within the field that funnel oil into the mouth of the larger trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which runs 800 miles from the North Slope to Valdez.
Normally, such transit lines do not have corrosion problems, Beaudo said and federal regulators confirm. That's because the lines carry finished oil - crude that has been processed to remove corrosive water.
Yet corrosion, for reasons BP engineers don't yet understand, developed and accelerated rapidly inside some or all of the transit lines, which extend for 22 miles across Prudhoe.
"It's kind of a detective story for us in a way," Beaudo said.
The belief is that bacteria set up shop inside the pipelines, triggering an aggressive and unexpected form of corrosion that ate at the steel, he said. The microbes like living under sludge in the pipes, shielding them from chemicals BP adds to the oil flow to suppress corrosion.
Beaudo said the sludge buildup inside the pipes might have been exacerbated by the low and slow flow rate through lines originally designed to handle much larger and faster-moving volumes of oil. Prudhoe has been pumping since 1977 and once produced four times what it does today.
"Pigging and cleaning, clearly in hindsight, would have removed the solids that we believe helped foster the growth of these microbes," Beaudo said.
BP had recently cleaned the sludge out of the pipeline that failed Sunday, a necessary step before running the smart pig that detected the holes.
BP now has powerful people scrutinizing its maintenance and testing practices. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has called for congressional hearings, and BP is responding to a federal grand jury subpoena to turn over records and even pieces of pipe as evidence in a potential criminal case.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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