BP’s Alaska Pipeline System Poses Oil Spill Risk

Could another BP oil spill – this time in Alaska – be a real possibility? Yes, according to a new ProPublica investigation. According to the investigative news outlet, BP’s extensive pipeline system is Alaska is so damaged by corrosion that much of it is at high risk for a rupture.

ProPublica obtained an internal BP maintenance report generated four weeks ago that shows that as of October 1, at least 148 BP pipelines on Alaska’s North Slope – which carry toxic or flammable substances – received an “F-rank” from the company. What that means is that 80 percent of the pipeline wall is corroded and could rupture. The corrosion in some areas is so bad that the walls of many pipes are within a few inches of bursting.

BP oil workers also say that the company’s fire- and gas-warning systems are unreliable, that the giant turbines that pump oil and gas through the system are aging, and that some oil and waste holding tanks are on the verge of collapse. ProPublica also said it was shown photos that BP employees in the Prudhoe Bay drilling field took over the summer that show sagging and rusted pipelines, some dipping in into pools of water or sinking into permafrost. One employee told ProPublica that BP’s efforts to rehabilitate the lines were not funded well enough to keep up with their rate of decline.

Incidentally, BP experienced two spills in 2006 because of corrosion along the Alaska pipeline. BP temporarily shut down all transmission of oil from the North Slope to the continental United States, cutting off approximately 8 percent of the nation’s oil supply, while it examined its pipeline system.

After the 2006 spills, the US Department of Transportation ordered BP to test its pipelines using an internal probe called a smart pig. Some of these lines had not been smart-pigged since 1992. In July 2006, BP sent a smart pig through its eastern pipelines, detecting extensive corrosion at several places.

It was subsequently learned that prior to 2006, BP had ignored various red flags and warnings raised about pipeline corrosion on several occasions. The 1992 tests on the eastern line had indicated the presence of calcium in the line, but nothing was done about it. In a 2004 email to a company lawyer, a union leader had expressed concern over the lowering of the number of staff on the corrosion monitoring team from eight to six. A company report in 2005 said BP based its corrosion-fighting on a limited budget instead of needs.

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