Alaska editorial: State should never back from strict pipeline enforcement

Posted: Tuesday, October 24, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Check it again, just to be sure. Run that drill again, just to make sure we didn't miss anything. Figure out how often to test a pipeline to guarantee its soundness, then do it more often.

That was the hot grill that Alaska's congressional delegation had ready for BP executives at a public forum last Friday at the Loussac Library.

Why weren't transit lines at Prudhoe Bay cleaned by a "pig," the device that is run through a pipe to clear it out? That seemed to be the gist of a 2002 order from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to BP, and the congressional delegation wanted to know why state regulators backed off four years ago.

DEC Commissioner Kurt Fredriksson said the state's 2002 order to pig the line was based on fears that sludge might interfere with accuracy of leak detection equipment. When BP ran tests that showed the sludge didn't interfere with its leak detection gear, the state consented that the more expensive pigging was unnecessary.

It was necessary, for two reasons.

One, corrosives in the sludge appear to be the culprit in the Prudhoe pipeline failures that have forced shutdowns and slowdowns in oil production.

Two, even without the value of hindsight, the state had the wrong attitude about its pigging requirement. BP tested and found no interference with its leak detection gear. Fine. But everyone could have been even more sure if BP had just cleaned out the muck.

The state's policy in regulating and pipeline oversight should be like that for airline or marine safety. Check and double check. Then do it again. Reduce the likelihood of trouble to as near zero as humanly possible. To do that, you have to be redundant, just like the best safety systems.

No system is guaranteed, but we're better off when we're thorough to a fault. Alaska had a bitter lesson about letting its guard down with the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Now Alaska has gone to school again with BP's woes at Prudhoe.

Let's learn this time. Demand more testing, not less. Instead of a public forum to put BP and the state through the wringer, let's make such sessions unnecessary.

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