Testimony: Alaska Oil Industry Teeters on Safety Edge

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 @ 03:02 PM gHale

Corrosion is rearing its ugly head as the trans-Alaska pipeline and poses a severe public safety and environmental risk, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s pipeline safety division.

The 800-mile pipeline ships 12 percent of the domestic oil supply. In a letter sent earlier this month to the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a coalition of oil companies that control the pipe, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) said there were issues that “pose a pipeline integrity risk.”

A reason for the increased corrosion is limited use, officials said. Oil began flowing through the 48-inch diameter pipeline in 1977. At its peak, the pipeline carried 2.1 million barrels per day, crossing three mountain ranges, from the North Slope of Alaska to Valdez, the state’s northernmost port.

Capacity has dropped starting in the late 1980’s. Between 2000 and 2010, annual capacity has dropped 38 percent, according to Alyeska Pipeline Service data. Today the pipeline operates at less than 700,000 barrels a day, one-third of the 2.1 million barrels per day that flowed at its peak.

The decrease in oil flow follows a drop in crude oil temperatures, which leads to corrosion. The lower temperatures also create the risk the water mixed with crude oil may freeze in case the pipeline needs to be temporarily shut down. “The water itself is another corrosion hazard” which could damage all components of the pipeline including the instrumentation and valves, the PHMSA letter said.

Regulators listed 13 corrective measures they say are necessary, including the replacement of any piping that cannot be assessed properly, additional technology used to mitigate corrosion, and a proven and effective cold restart plan.

The order follows a January leak in the pipeline that released about 13,326 gallons of oil at the North Slope pump station.

In addition, if there was large oil spill in Alaskan waters, it would be a disaster because of a diminished capacity to recover spilled oil.

In testimony before the House Transportation subcommittee hearing dealing with last year’s Gulf oil spill, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thad Allen said the Coast Guard does not have enough working icebreakers to respond to a spill and that North Slope response and recovery infrastructure is likewise inadequate.

“The current condition of the Coast Guard icebreaker fleet should be of great concern to the senior leaders of this nation,” Adm. Allen testified. As incident commander in the Gulf spill, Allen was responsible for coordinating response operations between government and BP, the responsible party.

“The pipeline is safe and … it’s a large, complex system that we manage within the risk,” said Alyeska Pipeline Service spokesperson Michelle Egan.

Alyeska wants to meet with regulators because “there are several [items in the letter] we disagree on and there are also several items in there that we have already begun,” Egan said.

BP owns half of Alyeska Pipeline Service. ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil own the other half.

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