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WASHINGTON - Federal regulators warned BP on Tuesday that it must supply detailed and credible evidence that a temporary fix to resume oil production on Alaska's North Slope can be done without environmental risk.
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BP must show it "can manage corrosion going forward," Thomas Barrett, chief of the Transportation Department's pipeline safety agency, told a Senate hearing at which oil company executives said they hope to present such a plan, possibly this week.
"We must be assured that even a temporary limited restart can be operated safely before it can proceed," said Barrett, who took over the DOT pipeline agency this year.
Robert Malone, chairman and president of BP America Inc., a subsidiary of BP, said the company planned to request within days that it be allowed to reopen the pipeline's eastern leg so more thorough tests - using a so-called "pig" device - can be run through it to ascertain if the line again can be used to send oil south.
"If the (remaining) inspection results show that the line has integrity ... we expect to make that request this week," Malone said. The segment where a leak occurred - and where tests have shown extensive internal corrosion - would be bypassed with oil diverted to a nearby line.
Malone said he could not speculate on when oil will again flow through the system under the temporary arrangement. A shutdown of the eastern leg has kept 200,000 barrel of Prudhoe Bay oil from going south since early August. A similar western leg was temporarily reopened last month with damage lines bypassed.
BP plans to build 16 miles of new line next year to replace the temporary system they now are trying to cobble together.
Barrett said BP failed to "fundamentally understand" the need for maintenance of its Alaska North Slope pipeline, leading to two oil leaks this year and the discovery of extensive corrosion.
Singling out BP for criticism, Barrett said, "We do not see conditions like this replicated on other lines on the North Slope and other lines in the national pipeline system."
BP's top executives, appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, apologized for its pipeline failure and promised to do better in the future. Nevertheless, they came under harsh criticism from senators across the political spectrum.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a staunch supporter of the oil industry that plays a prominent role in her state, suggested that in light of the BP incident new legislation might be needed to require proper maintenance of the country's oil infrastructure.
"This is a black eye on BP," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the committee chairman, told the oil company's executives.
Malone said he was committed to make changes. "BP has fallen short of the high standards we hold for ourselves, and the expectations that others have for us," he said.