ANCHORAGE - Sen. Ted Stevens said Thursday he is disturbed by corrosion problems at the Prudhoe Bay oil field after being assured for years that it was being properly maintained and was the safest in the world.
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Stevens, R-Alaska, said BP indicated it was doing a good job of inspecting the pipes at Prudhoe Bay, yet tests on the transit line that failed Aug. 6 showed it was more than 80 percent corroded in spots.
Stevens, sometimes almost shouting during a news conference, said he wanted to know why BP didn't do something much earlier to stop the corrosion.
"We should have known every time 1 percent was gone," Stevens said. "Even 1 to 2 percent is limiting the life of the pipeline."
Stevens also questioned why BP didn't do more to maintain the line to remove sludge and make it more difficult for bacteria to start eating away the transit pipe.
"We thought we had a very good corrosion inspection and maintenance program," said Scott Dean, a BP spokesman in Alaska. "We identified gaps in our program, but it was a program we thought was very effective."
BP is the operator of the North Slope oil field, the country's largest.
Stevens said BP did the right thing nearly two weeks ago when the leak line was discovered and the company decided to shut down the entire field, which at that time produced about 400,000 barrels of oil a day or half of all North Slope production.
BP later determined it could keep the west side open while it worked on plans to replace 16 miles of corroded transit lines. The field on Thursday was holding steady at producing about 150,000 barrels of oil, Dean said.
The Aug. 6 leak spilled about 200 gallons of oil, small in comparison to a March spill of up to 267,000 gallons that also was caused by a leak in a transit line on the west side of the field.
"I think it was necessary," Stevens said, of BP's decision early-on to shut down the entire oil field. "Two spills and something was causing it. Shut it down."
BP thought its program to detect corrosion was working, Stevens said. BP spent more than $70 million on the program last year, which involves inspecting more than 100,000 specific points on the more than 1,000 miles of pipe at Prudhoe Bay.
"I feel disappointed in the system," Stevens said. "It was defective."
Stevens called for better technology in the future so that BP could detect problems.
Stevens said the problems at Prudhoe Bay should not be used to argue against further development of Alaska's oil and gas resources, including opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. However, he said he expects environmentalists and others to do just that even though the company said it will replace the transit lines.
"The pipelines will be new," Stevens said. "It should not lead to a decision not to develop Alaska oil."
Dean said Thursday that BP is looking at options for reopening the east side of the field, including installing a bypass line to get the oil flowing again. After the March spill, BP had a bypass line up and working the following month.
"We've been studying a number of options but we've made no decision yet," Dean said, when asked about getting oil flowing again from the east side of Prudhoe Bay.