PRUDHOE BAY, Alaska - Federal regulators ordered BP PLC to conduct
more rigorous tests of oil pipelines Thursday as the company said it
might keep nearly half of the nation's largest oil field open despite
leaks and severe corrosion.
The Department of Transportation ordered four daily surveys of all
pipelines as BP announced it might not have to shut down its entire
Prudhoe Bay operations. BP said it would comply with the order.
The eastern side of the field was closed Tuesday after a small spill,
but about 140,000 barrels of oil continued to flow Thursday from the
western side, said Craig Wiggs, a performance unit leader for BP.
Before the company started shutting down operations, the field
produced 400,000 barrels a day.
If the western side kept flowing, that would mean the company would be
able to maintain the daily 140,000-barrel capacity - and possibly ramp
up to 185,000 barrels - while work continues on the eastern side.
But in order to keep that oil flowing, BP must strip insulation from
the pipes and conduct ultrasonic testing, the department's Pipeline
and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said.
The test will give a picture of the pipe's health that is similar to a
sonogram, typically used to view a fetus in the womb. The company also
will be required to use heat-seeking infrared equipment to detect
leaks and must visually inspect by foot, car or plane all 22 miles of
The company must also pass inspections before restarting its eastern
Steve Marshall, president of BP Exploration Alaska, said the company
was assessing Thursday what needs to be done to keep the operation
going. A decision on whether to continue operations at its western
field will be made early next week.
Wiggs said the company had initially decided to shut down the entire
field because the leak on the eastern side made officials question
their earlier inspections throughout the pipeline. But now, Wiggs
said, the company was rethinking whether it could keep the western
"It's a line we have the best confidence in," Wiggs said. "We've spent
lots of time inspecting it in March, April and May after the spill."
The long-term plan would still be to replace the pipeline on the west
side, which is where the company discovered a massive spill of up to
267,000 gallons in March.
BP also said it takes full responsibility for the lack of upkeep that
led to the severe corrosion and shutdown.
"BP is the operator of the field. We're ultimately responsible," said
Kemp Copeland, manager of the Prudhoe Bay oil field.
BP has a contract with Canadian company Acuren to provide corrosion
inspections. The eastern side of the Prudhoe Bay pipeline had not
undergone a high-tech inspection called "smart pigging" since 1992,
although the western side had undergone the check in 1998 and was
scheduled for the test this summer.
Acuren officials did not immediately return several messages late
Thursday. The Acuren companies are subsidiaries of Rockwood Service
Corp., headquartered in Greenwich, Conn.
BP workers on Thursday used ultrasound to listen for signs of thinning
walls in the carbon steel pipe.