Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Oil Pipelines and Regulation

It turns out that the recent oil spill along BP's Prudhoe Bay pipeline may have been due in part to insufficient government oversight.

BP's 22 miles of transit pipelines carried 8 percent of the nation's crude oil, but they were not subject to the same Transportation Department requirements as other pipelines, experts say. Those requirements exempt pipelines that operate at low pressure in rural areas and far from commercially navigable waters.

Although BP has admitted that it let as much as 14 years lapse without using cleaning and diagnostic devices known as "pigs" in key transit pipelines, it is not clear that the company violated any federal regulations.

That has not mollified Thomas Barrett, head of the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In an interview yesterday, he said that the maintenance of the BP pipelines was "well below the standard of care I would expect from a company like BP -- regulations or not." He said his agency would soon propose new rules to cover low-pressure lines like these near sensitive areas.

State regulators failed to fill the oversight gap that's existed until now. Kurt Fredriksson, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, said that his agency knew that BP had not used the pigs on its 30- to 34-inch transit lines since 1992 in one case and 1998 in another, but that it accepted the company's reasoning about why that was not necessary and why the company could rely on more narrow ultrasound examinations.

There is talk of making low-pressure lines subject to the same regulations as the high-pressure lines. Let's hope the government will do that, and enforce the regulations.