BP forges ahead with pipeline repairs


DEADHORSE, Alaska -- Hard by the Beaufort Sea, in 30-degree windchill and surrounded by an otherworldly tableau of bright orange natural gas flares, caribou herds and wisps of arctic fog, Kemp Copeland wants everyone to know that he's working as fast as he can.

As field operations manager at BP Exploration Alaska's vast oil complex here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the northern edge of Alaska, the 45-year-old Texas native oversees repairs to a pipeline delivery system that was abruptly hobbled last week by the discovery of severe "microbiological corrosion" in parts of the pipeline complex.

The near-shutdown in oil deliveries from Prudhoe Bay caused a sudden spike in oil prices on jittery world markets and has prompted virtual chaos in Alaska's state government, 89 percent of which is funded by oil revenues from North Slope fields. On Friday, a beleaguered BP announced that while repairs are under way, it would continue production of oil from the western side of the Prudhoe Bay field.

The problem with the pipeline has become a factor in the state's raucous politics, where some recent polls have suggested that Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, who ordered a blanket hiring freeze in state government Wednesday, is running third in a three-candidate GOP primary scheduled for Aug. 22.

While Murkowski and other Alaskans - as well as oil traders across the globe - wait for word on how long the repairs will take, Copeland cautions that he has no easy answers.

"We are looking at every available option, including bypass options," he said.

"However, our No. 1 priority is safety," said Copeland, a wiry, balding man whose Ross Perot twang mixes with a Jack Webb "just the facts, ma'am" delivery.

Critics say the corrosion problem is only the tip of a potential iceberg as the pipeline system nears its 30th birthday next year.

Industry officials sharply dispute that view, arguing that they carry out a rigorous inspection system for an 800-mile line that has delivered 14 billion barrels to the southern Alaska terminus at Valdez, while leaking less than the equivalent of one teaspoon in a swimming pool.

Copeland said about 200 BP employees were involved in responding to the spill and in emergency spot inspections for many of the 1,500 miles of pipeline that snake through the Prudhoe Bay complex.

Those lines constitute a feeder system to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is managed by a separate consortium and was not the source of the recent spill or one in March that also spurred criticism of BP's Alaska operations.

Copeland and other BP officials here describe the problem as the result of an unusual buildup of bacteria in one of the smaller feeder lines; bacteria are generally flushed through the system and don't accumulate.

The bacteria excreted a corrosive waste product, causing the leak, said company officials, who said they did not fully understand what caused the buildup.

About 15 barrels spilled, said Amanda Stark of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Workers in white chemical suits used vacuums and a rope-line absorption system to clean the dark stain that had spread across about 6,000 square feet of tundra.

The spill, detected last Sunday, is considered relatively minor, but the potential for corrosion problems elsewhere caused BP to shut down operations throughout much of the complex, triggering the price spike last week. (The price per barrel actually fell slightly for the week.)

BP officials said it could take weeks and perhaps months to replace the line and bring Prudhoe Bay back to full operations - and that is assuming that inspectors do not find similar problems elsewhere.

The company said Friday that it hoped to install 16 miles of new pipe by early next year.

"We think we have a very robust maintenance and inspection program," Copeland said. "Clearly we have a gap in our program, and going forward we will make changes."

Environmentalists disputed that view. "The oil industry has been asking us to trust them to protect Alaska's fragile arctic environment, but they have not yet earned that trust," said Peter Rafle, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society.

Murkowski promised that he would "hold BP accountable" but he also sought to play down the long-term problems posed by the shutdown, saying here Thursday after touring the complex: "You know, a lot of people have already concluded that we've had a catastrophe, and we haven't."

Sam Howe Verhovek writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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