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Alaska Editorial: Maintaining flow: Alyeska works to ensure pipeline keeps moving

Posted: April 11, 2013 - 12:08am

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The rate of flow in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline has been declining for 25 years and is nearing levels that will pose operational problems, so it’s good to see Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. looking at options to protect the line’s function.

The pipeline isn’t going to shut down anytime soon, but a major interruption of flow could be costly. The expense wouldn’t just come out of the pipeline owners’ pockets; the state of Alaska would feel the pinch, too, so we all have an interest in what Alyeska is doing to address the challenges. At peak flow in 1988, oil entering the pipeline at Pump Station 1 on the North Slope traveled the 800 miles to Valdez in four days. The temperature barely cooled below 100 degrees. Today, the trip takes 18 days, and the oil grows much colder. During a cold spell in January, the temperature in the line dipped close to the freezing point as it flowed past Fairbanks. The cooler oil deposits more wax inside the pipeline system. Water drops out, increasing corrosion. Snow builds up on storage tanks in Valdez. If there were a major malfunction that required an extended shutdown during a cold spell, getting the chilled oil moving again would become more difficult.

Alyeska already is heating the oil with a couple techniques to avoid further cooling. Oil enters the line at Pump Station 1 at about 110 degrees but drops to below 60 degrees at PS3 on the North Slope. At that station and several others on the way to Valdez, Alyeska heats the oil. In coming years, it will add equipment to add more warmth. It also picks up some heat from the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole. Today, oil arriving in Valdez is about 40 degrees.

The solution might seem to be simply add more heat. However, Alyeska officials visiting here last month indicated that they’re discovering that heating the oil creates some unexpected challenges. It seems to actually increase wax precipitation, for example, which then requires more cleaning with mechanical “pigs.” So Alyeska is looking at other improvements, such as removing residual water from the line. Currently, the liquid in the line is about 0.22 percent water. If that can be cut by one half or three quarters, the danger of a freeze-up is lowered and corrosion problems could be reduced. Getting that water out would probably require some large new tanks in addition to the one that already sit next to PS1.

Alaskans all have an interest in this subject, for a few reasons. A major interruption in the flow of the line obviously could reduce the annual throughput of the line and therefore the state’s income from taxes and royalties. However, money spent to address the low-flow problems also reduces the state’s income because pipeline expenses are deducted from the taxable value of the oil. Finally, pipeline expenses also affect the tariff that companies must pay to ship oil on the line, so high tariffs can discourage new exploration and development.

Alyeska needs to find the right balance between securing the line and conserving expenses. It appears the company is taking that challenge seriously.

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