Alaska editorial: Congress sheds light on big oil operations

Posted: Monday, May 28, 2007

This editorial appeared in The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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"People no longer challenge and think." That was the startling word the other week from Bob Malone, chief executive officer of BP America, at a hearing of a U.S. House subcommittee investigating last year's spill of about 200,000 gallons of oil from a corroded feeder line at Prudhoe Bay, which is operated by BP on behalf of several companies.

Malone was being questioned sharply about the management culture at BP and among company personnel on the North Slope.

What's more, Malone added that he and others at BP now believe that budget pressures coming down from BP headquarters contributed to the atmosphere that led to the maintenance failure. "We recognize that those budget pressures put our employees in a very difficult place," he told the House members, who are part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The March 2006 spill was the largest at Prudhoe Bay and led to a partial shutdown of the field.

Malone, judging by the news accounts of the hearing, appeared to adopt the right tone with members. He may have had little choice: BP's image has been battered by the Alaska spill, a deadly refinery explosion in Texas, and the public perception that high profits from high oil prices are wildly out of bounds for all oil companies. That, and the Democratic-controlled Congress is less than friendly to the oil industry.

Mr. Malone may also have had to speak the conciliatory words because of the revelation of several e-mails that seem to indicate BP was inclined to cut corners at Prudhoe Bay.

In one company e-mail, from 1999, according an Associated Press report of the hearing, BP managers sought a 10 percent reduction in the use of an anti-corrosion chemical but said the move would be "a risky call."

Another e-mail, from October 2001, said money didn't exist to continue use of another anti-corrosion chemical, that use of the chemical should be discontinued quickly, and that the decision was "rather disagreeable."

Notes like that don't inspire confidence.

Congress, if Democrats can keep in check their giddiness at having oil executives in the hot seat, can serve a helpful purpose by shedding light on how the oil companies are conducting themselves on public lands - and for a public that has an insatiable appetite for products fueled by the oil found there. Congress, through this and perhaps other hearings, should seek not to castigate but to work with BP and other companies to restore confidence in an industry that has many critics but that is nevertheless vital to the nation's current way of living.

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