SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Little leaks, big mess
San Francisco Chronicle


August 14, 2006
Monday PM

DEADHORSE, Alaska -- Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field, sits at the edge of the Arctic Ocean on a stretch of land so flat that only the occasional well, pumping station, caribou or Quonset hut breaks the horizon.

Oil production began here in 1977 and has since spread a web of pipelines across the land, most of them running in clusters of three or four that rest on stilts above the tundra. The field has 1,500 miles of pipe, some carrying oil, some water, some natural gas and others a mixture of all three.




What passes for civilization here is the community of Deadhorse, less a town than a large equipment yard with a few small hotels and an airstrip. Summer lasts three months, melting ice within the top few inches of tundra and dotting the landscape with small lakes. Plants dubbed Arctic cotton sprout white tufts in the grass before the snow starts falling again in September.

For the past week, the engineers and crews who work in this open and cold landscape have been less concerned with pumping oil out of the ground than with preventing serious environmental damage.

One week ago, an inspection crew found a spill spreading beneath one of the main pipelines in the area. Four other spots on the same line were leaking oil into the insulation surrounding the pipe - potential spills in the making.

Not much crude escaped, just 17 barrels on a patch of damp earth smaller than a backyard pool. But discovery of the spill and the weakened sections of pipe forced the partial closure of America's largest oil field, shook world oil markets and threatened drivers with another round of record gasoline prices, with experts predicting Californians could pay another 20 cents more per gallon.

Cleanup crews are busy. On a recent afternoon, two men, their white jumpsuits smeared with oil, plunged a vacuum hose into a pool of crude staining the green tundra, the acrid smell of petroleum tainting the cold summer air. A small motor nearby dragged ropelike sponges across blackened grass, sucking up oil.

The spill highlighted just how precarious, and politically volatile, America's oil situation has become.

Tight worldwide supplies have pushed prices steadily higher, to levels not seen since the historic oil shocks of the 1970s and early 1980s. The long fight over whether to drill for oil and gas in America's remaining wilderness, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just east of Prudhoe Bay, has flared anew, with both sides using last week's shutdown as ammunition. Drilling supporters say it shows the need for more sources of oil. Environmentalists consider it proof that oil companies can't be trusted to keep the Arctic clean.

Executives of BP, the international oil company that runs Prudhoe Bay, say the pipeline's serious deterioration took them by surprise. They have vowed to replace the field's oldest pipes, including the stretches that have leaked. The process should be complete early next year.

"Clearly, in hindsight, we would have been doing some things differently with these old lines," said Kemp Copeland, BP's Prudhoe Bay field manager, during a tour of the sprawling oil field Friday. "I do think sometimes bad things happen to good companies."

BP's critics say the company should have known its system for inspecting Prudhoe Bay's 1,500 miles of pipes wasn't tough enough, particularly after a rupture this March on another stretch of pipeline dumped 5,000 barrels of crude - the biggest spill in the field's 29-year history. Environmentalists and federal regulators have accused the company, which under Chief Executive Officer Lord John Browne made a $7.3 billion profit last quarter, of skimping on maintenance.

"Old infrastructure is just not sexy," said Lois Epstein, senior engineer for the Cook Inletkeeper environmental group in Anchorage. "It just doesn't capture Lord Browne's attention."

Although the exact causes of the recent spills haven't been determined, BP executives say the answer may lie in Prudhoe Bay's overall decline.

Like most American oil fields, Prudhoe Bay is past its peak, pumping less than a third as much oil than it did in its heyday. Pressure in the field's pipelines has dropped as the amount of crude they carry falls. That lower pressure may have allowed colonies of bacteria to build up within the pipes.

The bacteria, which excrete metal-eating acid, used to appear in pipelines carrying water or a mixture of water, natural gas and oil, but not in those carrying processed crude, Copeland said. Both pipelines involved in this year's spills hold processed crude bound for the trans-Alaska pipeline and West Coast refineries. They now need to be replaced, and the federal government has ordered more rigorous inspection than they faced in the past.

"We led ourselves to believe there wasn't the corrosion risk there that we've found there is," Copeland said. "This year, we've been surprised twice."

In March, one of the pipes carrying processed crude started leaking in a trench designed to let caribou cross the pipeline. A worker driving past noticed the smell of oil and found the spill. It turned out to be the largest the field had ever experienced, covering 2 acres. Cleanup crews had to work in minus-50-degree temperatures as they scooped up the oil and the snow beneath it.

The spill prompted the federal office in charge of pipeline safety to issue orders that, in blunt language, called BP's leak detection system ineffective and demanded a new, more stringent review of the field's main crude-oil lines. Without increased scrutiny and maintenance, the orders said, continued operation of the pipelines would be "hazardous to life, property and the environment."

Those orders led to last week's shutdown.

BP placed inside one of the crude oil lines a device called a "smart pig" that scans for corrosion on the pipe's interior wall. The pipeline, installed in 1977, hadn't been checked by a smart pig in years.

The pig found 16 "anomalies," places where the pipe wall had lost at least 70 percent of its thickness. Crews went to check those spots and found four where tiny quantities of oil had seeped through the steel and stained the insulation protecting the pipe from the Arctic's steep temperature swings. Soon, they found a spill.

As a result, BP executives shut down the line, cutting off production from Prudhoe Bay's eastern half. That instantly blocked more than 200,000 barrels of oil from reaching the market each day, roughly half of the field's total production. And they warned that they might have to close the field's western half as well. Only on Friday did they decide otherwise, after close examination of the field's western pipeline found no leaks or serious corrosion.



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Ketchikan, Alaska