Congress Digs into BP Pipeline Problems
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Oil prices have slipped to their lowest levels in months, but that is not stopping the battle over future oil supplies.
Yesterday a judge temporarily stopped a plan to sell oil leases for more than one million acres in Alaska. Environmentalists filed a lawsuit to protect what they describe as essential land for caribou and birds.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the busiest oil companies in Alaska faced questions in Congress yesterday. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on BP's corroded pipelines in the nation's biggest oilfield.
SCOTT HORSLEY: BP cultivates a reputation as a forward-thinking oil company that invests in alternative fuels and acts as a good steward of the environment. But a much less flattering picture emerged from yesterday's hearing before a House energy subcommittee - one of a company that skimped on basic pipeline maintenance, and badgered workers who raised safety or environmental concerns.
Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky says BP's conduct was astonishing and infuriating, especially for a company with profits last year topping $19 billion.
Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): If this company had spent as much on inspections, safety, and maintenance as it does on advertising, BP executives could be counting their bonuses and the public would be assured of the company's pipeline integrity.
HORSLEY: BP says it welcomes the scrutiny. But that hasn't always been the case.
An audit conducted for the company two years ago, by the Vinson and Elkins law firm, found that employees in BP's corrosion inspection and chemicals group were intimidated and discouraged from raising concerns. Vinson and Elkins recommended that the hard-charging manager of that group be reassigned, and he was. That former manager, Richard Willam(ph), was called as a last-minute witness yesterday, but he refused to answer committee members' questions.
Mr. RICHARD WILLAM (BP Executive): Mr. Chairman, based upon the advice of counsel, I respectfully will not answer questions based upon my right under the Fifth Amendment of the United States, the Constitution.
HORSLEY: BP's Alaskan President, Steve Marshall, did testify. But he never offered a compelling answer to the question lawmakers asked over and over again - why hadn't BP cleaned and inspected the inside of its oil lines more frequently.
Texas Congressman Joe Barton noted that one of BP's corroded lines hadn't been cleaned or internally inspected for 14 years, while the TransAlaskan pipeline it feeds into is inspected every three years and cleaned every other week.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): What's the difference in management approach there? It's the same oil.
Mr. STEVE MARSHALL (President, BP Alaska): Mr. Congressman, we didn't believe we had a corrosion problem in those lines. Clearly, in retrospect, we did.
HORSLEY: BP's Marshall says cost was not a big factor in skipping the internal inspections. In the last few years, he says, BP has dramatically increased its spending on anti-corrosion efforts. But he concedes BP is still paying a price for penny-pinching ways of the past.
Mr. MARSHALL: One of the things I regret is that I didn't do more to change the perception inside our team about spending money. It takes a huge effort to change the perceptions of cost-cutting that were a feature of the late ‘90s, when we experienced $9 and $10 oil and the industry took some significant belt tightening under its weight.
HORSLEY: BP has promised improvements. The company has hired a ombudsmen to field employee complaints. It's working to bypass corroded lines by next month so it can reopen the eastern half of Prudhoe Bay.
And later this winter, the company hopes to install replacement pipes, which it says will be cleaned and inspected on a regular basis.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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