America’s biggest oil field shut down over safety

BP is shutting down the biggest oil field in the US after the discovery of severe corrosion along its Alaskan pipelines, the company announced on Monday.

The Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska, accounts for 8% of US oil output, and will take several days to shut down. The news caused oil prices to rise by as much as 2.4% a day after the announcement.

Data from a “smart pig” probe obtained on August 4 showed that pipeline walls had been partially eaten away by rust in 16 places at 12 different locations along the pipeline. Further investigations led to the discovery of a small oil spill, estimated at 4-5 barrels. Safe operation of the field is not possible along the pipeline in their current state, the company said.

BP’s operations in Alaska have had their fair share of bad publicity following a massive oil spill in March, which the company blamed on pipe corrosion (see related story). The incident prompted the closure of 3 miles of pipeline, and is subject to an on-going investigation by US federal agents.

Alaska came into the spotlight again in July when whistleblowers alleged 50 oil wells were leaking, most of them in Prudhoe Bay, and led BP to close 12 of the wells.

The most recent revelations are likely to further undermine BP’s safety record in the area, strengthening environmentalists’ arguments against further oil exploration in Alaska. While the US government plans to conduct further drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic to ease the energy crisis, environmental groups like the Alaska Wilderness League say this will endanger ecologically sensitive, pristine areas and call for tighter safety controls on existing pipelines.

BP has said it has managed to contain the spill, and proceeded to shut down the pipeline on Sunday morning.

BP America president Bob Malone said: “We regret that it is necessary to take this action and we apologize to the nation and the State of Alaska for the adverse impacts it will cause.”

“However, the discovery of this leak and the unexpected results of this most recent smart pig run have called into question the condition of the oil transit lines at Prudhoe Bay. We will not resume operation of the field until we and government regulators are satisfied that they can be operated safely and pose no threat to the environment.”

While the Prudhoe Bay field remains shut for an as yet unknown period, BP aims to inspect the rest of Prudhoe Bay’s 22 miles of oil pipeline. The company has so far checked 40% of the network using the “smart pigging” method.

Goska Romanowicz

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