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Analysis: Lax regulations cause BP spill

By DONNA BORAK, UPI Energy Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- The August leak at Prudhoe Bay, which prompted BP officials to shut down half of its high crude oil production, has raised serious concerns among congressional members over lax federal regulations across U.S. oil production lines.

Nationwide, oil transit lines are divided into two categories either low-pressure or high-pressure pipelines, depending on their diameter. For the most part, low-pressure pipelines have not been federally regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, leaving the onus on operators like BP to maintain inspections and monitor corrosion in order to keep lines running properly.

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For oil fields like Prudhoe Bay, which produce 400,000 barrels a day or 8 percent of U.S. domestic production every year, lax maintenance and unregulated scheduling of smart pigging leaves open the possibility of severe disruption of U.S. domestic supply, especially at a time when the administration is seeking to wean itself off its dependency of foreign oil resources.

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"The lines that failed were exempt from regulations by DOT itself despite longstanding concerns of the Congress that low stress pipelines could pose significant risk," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich, at a recent House Energy committee hearing on Prudhoe Bay.

In the case of BP, senior executives acknowledge that the corrosion control program was inadequate despite attempts to use alternative inspection programs like ultrasonic testing, for areas where smart-pigging could not be operated.

"BP didn't fundamentally understand the conditions of their lines and did not maintain it properly," Thomas Barrett, administrator for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, testified Tuesday before the Senate Energy committee.

The administration has been seeking to address the issue by proposing new regulations on rural low-pressure pipelines that would require operators to run internal inspections devices through their pipelines and review changes in crude oil quality which might contribute to corrosion.

Under the new regulation, more than 1,200 miles of pipelines will have to meet regular cleaning inspections, the same type of regulations applied to high-pressure pipelines.

The Department of Transportation has historically viewed low-pressure pipelines as low-risk, and consequently has focused on high-pressure oil lines in highly populated areas which present greater risks to health and safety, Barrett said in his testimony. .

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"The proposal is designed to protect unusually sensitive environmental areas in rural locations and would mandate a level of care well in excess of what BP had in place on the lines that failed," said Barrett.

While Barrett attempted to downplay concerns over the entire security of the U.S. pipeline system, some U.S. lawmakers said the new regulation was "inadequate," arguing that even with new laws it would provide "a bare minimum requirement to manage corrosion and to report spills."

"The proposed rules is eerily reminiscent of the nation's views and experience with the industry in which the gas industry preferred proposals and leads me to conclude that my increasing confidence in the performance of the pipeline and hazardous material safety administration on pipeline safety has been misplaced," said Dingell.

Peter Lidiak, director of pipeline segment for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, told United Press International that the new proposed regulations by DOT would be a step in the right direction especially among low-pressure pipelines carrying larger amounts of crude like in the case of BP's pipelines in Prudhoe Bay.

"We see these larger volume lines have been unregulated and we believe that there is room for greater federal oversight that supplements in effect what is state oversight for those lines in the number of states at this point. But the line in Alaska, for example, was subject to the state of Alaska oversight and would review BP's corrosion program every year. Obviously, additional oversight would have been beneficial in that case."

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Currently, there is an industry-wide standard on how low-pressure pipelines are operated, however operators are not mandated to apply industry standards.

"I'm not convinced it's the federal government's place to require mandatory controls in every circumstance. Certainly, where public safety is involved there ought to be federal oversight and there is. We've looked at these larger lines from the standpoint at what the potential impact could be," said Lidiak.

Analysts suggest it is likely that U.S. lawmakers and the administration will push new legislation to require more vigilance on U.S. oil production lines to avert any supply disruption. Currently, there are two bills in the House being considering on tightening pipeline safety.

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(Comments to energy@upi.com)

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