Optimism Grows at Prudhoe Bay

By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press
Friday, September 1, 2006

PRUDHOE BAY, Alaska, Aug. 31 -- BP officials are increasingly optimistic that Prudhoe Bay oil production may return to normal levels earlier than they initially expected. A portion of the pipeline idled by corrosion concerns may be useable at least temporarily, they said, while other questionable sections could be bypassed.

The flow of oil from Prudhoe Bay has been cut in half, to 200,000 barrels a day, as BP prepares to replace 16 miles of pipeline after discovering extensive internal corrosion that resulted in spills in March and early August.

Oil deliveries resumed this month through the western half of the pipeline system by bypassing the damaged sections of pipe. But the eastern section remains idle as BP conducts extensive tests to determine whether at least some of that pipe can be used.

"The idea that there was widespread corrosion simply was not correct," David Peattie, London-based BP PLC's vice president for exploration and production said Wednesday.

He said that the corrosion was isolated and that ultrasound tests will determine how much of the pipeline might be returned to service temporarily.

BP officials emphasized that any resumption of oil flow in the eastern section will depend on whether the company can convince the Transportation Department that such a move can be made without risk of another spill.

"We are working together with them," Kemp Copeland, BP's Prudhoe Bay field manager, said Wednesday. "Neither one of us wants to see another leak at Prudhoe Bay."

With three congressional hearings scheduled for early September, BP officials want to avoid any suggestion that they are playing down the extent of pipeline damage, or be perceived as wanting to return pipes to use prematurely.

But in briefings given Wednesday to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who is on a three-day tour of North Slope oil facilities, and in separate interviews, BP officials clearly were optimistic that the pipeline system can be returned to normal production using a temporary fix.

"We hope that we can come back to near-normal production prior to full replacement of the lines," said Daren Beaudo, a BP spokesman.

The company has said it plans to begin replacing the 16 miles of pipe early next year.

At the same time, BP is aggressively gathering test data along a five-mile stretch of the idle pipeline. BP engineers say they believe the tests will show the pipe is sound enough to resume use until the new system is completed. The three-mile section where extensive corrosion was discovered in early August would be bypassed using a nearby pipeline, the officials said.

BP officials took Kempthorne to the site of the most recent spill and to areas along another section of pipe that is undergoing intensive testing to determine its integrity.

Copeland said 2,700 ultrasound tests and an additional 4,000 tests using other technology had been done along the five miles of pipe officials hope to reopen. The most severe degradation of pipe wall found so far has been 28 percent, he said. By comparison, the wall loss was 78 percent or more in 16 areas of extensive corrosion near the August spill that prompted the shutdown.

Copeland and other BP officials cautioned that more testing needed to be done.

The final say on whether the eastern leg of the pipeline system can be reopened will be up to the Transportation Department, Beaudo said. "We're getting more and more confident that the tests will show some of the pipeline now shutdown will be deemed fit for operation."

"We're doing everything we can to get the east side of Prudhoe back on line," Beaudo said. But he declined to say when BP plans to make its case to the Transportation Department's pipeline safety agency.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company