Managing perception

April 24, 2006
Attention on pipeline integrity management first approached current levels in the 1970s when debate surrounding the 800-mile Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System unleashed activism previously unseen in the pipeline industry.

Attention on pipeline integrity management first approached current levels in the 1970s when debate surrounding the 800-mile Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System unleashed activism previously unseen in the pipeline industry.

Even after the engineering challenges of building roughly half the length across permafrost had been effectively addressed, environmental activists mounted successive legal actions under the then-new National Environmental Policy Act in an effort to derail or delay the pipeline. Native American populations in the area also found themselves with unprecedented leverage and used it to exact the best terms possible for transit of their lands.

Parties also massed in favor of the pipeline, foremost among them the partners in Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and those segments of the Alaskan population that saw the project as a way of advancing the state’s or their own interests.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act of 1973, passed shortly after the Arab oil embargo, eventually broke the deadlock, banning additional legal challenges to the project and allowing work to begin.

PBS’s most recent installment of its American Experience documentary series, “The Alaska Pipeline,” debuting Apr. 24, details the project from beginning to end, focusing on the sheer force of will and dedication of people and resources required to see the work through.

Among the challenges addressed were news reports in early 1976 that thousands of already completed welds might be fundamentally flawed. Isolating suspect welds and fixing those that required it not only threatened the project schedule but also cast doubts on the quality assurance program of the pipeline.

Issues reborn

The spill in March of 200,000 gal of North Slope crude from BP Exploration Alaska’s pipeline and investigations into the company’s maintenance, inspection, and corrosion monitoring practices have raised new concerns regarding the safety of liquids pipelines even as huge new projects gather on the horizon.

More than 5,500 miles of crude and product lines are currently planned for construction in the US and Canada (OGJ, Feb. 13, 2006, p. 57). These include TransCanada PipeLines Ltd.’s proposed 1,840-mile Keystone project, designed to transport 435,000-b/d of crude from Hardisty, Alta. to Patoka, Ill., and Enbridge Inc.’s Gateway project, a 700-mile, 400,000-b/d crude line from Strathcona County, near Edmonton, to Kitimat, BC, and a parallel 150,000-b/d line to carry condensate the opposite direction.

Just a sampling of recent pipeline-related headlines, however, reveals that the obstacles to be overcome for such projects will once again be more than technological, financial, and environmental; they will include the need to win some degree of public trust and approval.

In addition to the BP crude spill:

• A former Alyeska lab technician pleaded guilty to falsifying wastewater test data.

• BP Pipelines (North America) Inc. received fines for events dating back to 2004 involving failure to inspect rights-of-way, pressure-control valves, and test leads related to cathodic protection.

• Corrosion caused a spill of produced water at a second North Slope site, operated by ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc.

These events and others like them have prompted editorials across the country raising questions about pipelines.

The reality

Yet pipelines are demonstrably safer than ever, and work continues toward making them even more so.

The article on p. 68 makes clear that the frequency and volume of spills are diminishing steadily, particularly when acts of nature such as last summer’s hurricanes are removed from the equation.

Hard, positive information such as this can go a long way toward counterbalancing negative, anecdotal reports. It needs, however, to be delivered intentionally to its potential audience.

Similarly, when concerned parties meet Apr. 27 before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality for the second hearing on reauthorizing the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002, not only should intraindustry struggles be put aside to allow development of the best bill possible, but tangible results of the legislation should be broadly disseminated.

The Association of Oil Pipelines is optimistic that the scheduling of this hearing early in the current legislative session is a sign of progress toward eventual reauthorization.

If and when reauthorization occurs, it will be incumbent on the industry at large to let the public know what was done and why it matters.