BP Will Pump from Part of Prudhoe Bay

Corrosion in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay pipeline prompted the oil giant to shut down production last week. Now BP says it can continue pumping oil from part of the oil field, but critics still blame company officials for inadequate inspection methods.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Energy giant BP has decided to keep pumping oil from the western half of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil field. A week ago, after finding corrosion in some of its pipelines, the company said it was going to temporarily shut down the entire field. BP changed its mind after consulting state and federal regulators, and after further inspection of its pipes. The company now says it's confident it can operate the western half of the field safely.

Joining us is NPR's Scott Horsley, who's just back from a visit to Prudhoe Bay.

Scott, what's changed in the last week?

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Well, Liane, by BP's own admission, the announcement that it made last week to shut down the whole field was drastic - I mean, turning off the taps on 400,000 barrels from the largest field in the country - and some observers, including the governor of Alaska, suggested that BP was over reacting.

What had happened was, the company had just discovered its second oil spill in five months. And as the oil leaked on to the tundra there, some of BP's confidence spilled out as well. They just suddenly didn't feel like they could be confident that these pipelines were safe to be carrying oil. So they spent the last week trying to regain their confidence. They've stepped up the inspections, as you say.

And the trouble is, the kind of inspections that they've been doing during this last week are the same kind they were doing all along. And those inspections failed to detect the corrosion that's caused the problem.

HANSEN: Why did they miss the corrosion?

HORSLEY: Well, they do both a visual inspection - most of these pipelines are above ground - and then they also do an ultrasound test to measure the thickness of the pipes. But that's a very labor-intensive process. I watched them do some during this last week. They first have to saw off the insulation that covers the pipeline and then they do like a sonogram to see how thick the walls are. And so they can't do every inch of pipeline. They do sort of a sample all along these 16 miles of pipe and they miss some spots.

What BP is only now starting to do is a more comprehensive sort of a survey, in which they send a sensoring device, called a smart pig, through the inside of the pipe. That's the testing that ultimately found the corrosion. And the question that regulators are asking now is why wasn't BP doing this kind of check all along?

HANSEN: Is there an answer to that question? Why weren't they?

HORSLEY: Well, BP's answer is that of the 1500 or so miles of pipeline they have at Prudhoe Bay, these 16 miles of what they call oil transit lines were just not thought to be a high risk of corrosion. What they carry is 99.6 percent pure oil. The water and water-borne bacteria thought to cause corrosion are supposed to have already been removed from these pipes. Even so, what BP now thinks is that there was some water-borne bacteria that's responsible for the corrosion and they're trying to figure out why.

One theory is that the oil in these pipes is moving a lot more slowly than it used to, too slowly to sweep the bacteria away. And the reason the oil is moving more slowly is that Prudhoe Bay is not producing nearly as much oil as it was at its peak. In the long run, BP is planning to replace these 16 miles of oil transit lines. And when they do so, they're going to use a narrower pipe with a smaller capacity, so that the oil will move through more quickly and, hopefully, prevent this problem in the future.

HANSEN: Yeah, but what about the short run? How are they going to make sure that they don't have any more spills?

HORSLEY: What they're going to be doing is round the clock patrols both on the ground - they'll have airplanes flying over the pipes with infrared cameras looking for any spills. They're going to be also be checking the data day by day and not take for granted anymore that these pipeline are as solid as they once believed they were.

HANSEN: You know, Scott, BP calls this discovery of the corrosion a surprise. But critics, including some lawmakers, say the company should have seen it coming.

HORSLEY: That's right. There are certainly whistleblowers out there who have said for years that BP was shortchanging its maintenance in Prudhoe Bay. One of the critics, Chuck Hamel, told me that for BP to say it's surprised now that there was corrosion is like a Russian roulette player saying he's surprised to find out there was a bullet in the chamber. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has already set a hearing for next month to examine BP's maintenance record. So even though oil - some oil will still be flowing through Prudhoe Bay, I think BP is far from off the hook.

HANSEN: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Liane.

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