Congress seeks more information about ANS shutdown

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, Aug. 11 -- Energy leaders on both sides of the US Capitol demanded more information on Aug. 10 as BP PLC moved ahead with plans to shut down much of its crude oil pipeline system on Alaska's North Slope.

Senate Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) and Chief Minority Member Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) recommended a full investigation into early reports that BP had not used internal inspection devices in a timely manner at the Prudhoe Bay oil field's eastern operating area.

In an Aug. 10 letter to Thomas J. Barrett, the recently installed chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the senators said they also understood that the Department of Transportation agency had issued compliance orders to BP since another pipeline incident in the western operating area in March, and that investigations of that leak were under way within DOT, the Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We urge your continued attention to this important issue and request that you keep us fully apprised of the Prudhoe Bay situation. We will continue to monitor this situation and, if necessary, take appropriate action," Domenici and Bingaman wrote Barrett.

Meanwhile, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said Aug. 10 his committee would hold a hearing focusing on BP's management of its Prudhoe Bay oil transit lines on Sept. 7. Witnesses and the hearing's time and location will be announced later, he indicated.

One day earlier, the committee's chief minority member, John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), said the oil pipeline leaks and shutdown at Prudhoe Bay pose implications for reauthorization of the 2002 Pipeline Safety Act.

"This mess tells us at least three things: First, the law needs to be changed to explicitly cover low-pressure pipelines. Second, enforcement requirements in the law need to be toughed. And third, pipeline inspection and enforcement need a large does of sunshine," he maintained.

Due before committee
The bill, which has cleared the Senate and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee already, is expected to come before the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Congress returns from its August recess. "Making these improvements in the law should be a priority when Congress reconvenes in September," Dingell said.

PHMSA already is working on new regulations dealing with low-stress, low-volume pipelines, a spokesman for the agency told OGJ on Aug. 10.

In their letter to Barrett, Domenici and Bingaman also said that early reports of 16 anomalies at 12 locations in a 3-mile area of the Prudhoe Bay field's eastern operating area "are distressing and, if true, are inexcusable."

Citing testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, they said the earlier spill in March was on a transmission line exempt from PHMSA regulations because it was a low-stress pipeline meeting the agency's location requirements. "We request information on the extent of exempt pipelines in the Prudhoe Bay fields," they said.

A day earlier, Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski told a joint session of the state's legislature in Juneau that a cabinet level team led by Natural Resources Commissioner Mike Menge would "make certain that the environment is protected and that there is a strong corrective action plan and a safe business resumption plan in place as soon as possible" at Prudhoe Bay.

Murkowski also said he has asked Atty. Gen. Dave Marquez, who is a member of the special team, to look into legal aspects of the shutdown and its impacts on the state. He said that it would be irresponsible for Alaska not to try and reconcile BP's pipeline maintenance and condition reports over recent years with its abrupt decision to shut down the oil field.

"The attorney general will review the state's legal rights and determine an appropriate course of action to protect the state's interests, including the state's right to hold BP fully accountable for losses to the state," Murkowski said.

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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