Congress plans probe of BP’s ‘chronic neglect’

A congressional committee that oversees pipeline safety has scheduled a Sept. 7 hearing on last week’s partial Prudhoe Bay oil field shutdown, and the chairman vowed to examine deeply the company’s “chronic neglect.”

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, wrote in a Friday letter to BP’s London-based chief executive, John Browne, that the firm for months had repeatedly assured the committee that a pipeline breach and a large tundra spill in early March were just an anomaly. The discovery of extensive corrosion that led to the shutdown “contradicts everything the committee has been told,” Barton wrote.

“The consequent disruptions to energy production and delivery and resultant adverse impacts on American consumers and the American economy are not excusable, particularly in light of substantial evidence that BP’s chronic neglect directly contributed to the shutdown,” Barton wrote.

Barton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joins a growing chorus of BP critics including Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who has been pushing federal pipeline regulators all year to crack down on BP. Barton said the hearing would cover why BP hadn’t operated and maintained its facilities “up to U.S. industrial standards” and why it waited until the federal Department of Transportation issued a corrective action order before inspecting corroded pipes after the March spill, which left an estimated 201,000 gallons of oil on the tundra.

In addition, Barton said lawmakers would question BP on whether it had a “market strategy component” to shutting down the field this month, an apparent reference to allegations of price manipulation practices in the propane gas market.

A BP spokesman Monday denied any suggestions of price manipulation.

“The field was shut down because we had unexpectedly severe corrosion that we couldn’t explain and that caused us to question the condition of transit lines,” said Tom Mueller, a company spokesman in Anchorage. “It was the only decision we could take.”

Mueller said the company was working hard to keep Congress informed.

“The congressman (Barton) has questions, and we will cooperate fully in answering whatever questions he and (other) committee members may have,” he said.

Lawmakers need to get more precise about how pipelines should be maintained as they plan hearings, a pipeline safety watchdog said Monday.

“There’s a lot of arbitrariness and gray areas in the regulations right now,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent group set up after a 1999 disaster killed three children in Bellingham, Wash.

Weimer said that until BP’s Prudhoe shutdown, Congress seemed content to go along with what the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an agency within the DOT, was drafting in collaboration with the oil industry.

Now, he said, Congress will be “taking a much firmer look” at whether it wants specific provisions from the agency.

Congress this year has been writing legislation to reauthorize the 2002 pipeline safety act, and Dingell said he wants the reauthorization to explicitly cover low-pressure lines such as the transit lines that have created the problems within the Prudhoe field.

Federal regulators have been working for nearly two years to develop rules for such unregulated lines.

The proposal, which would be subject to public comment and further regulatory review, is likely to be published in the next several weeks.

Thomas Barrett, head of the pipeline safety administration, has said the new regulation would consider corrosion control, damage-prevention programs, operator qualifications, integrity assessments and management.

Weimer said the BP incident underscored the need for better definitions of what should be covered under the law. For example, he said, standards need to be defined better for internal as well as external corrosion. And he said much of inspectors’ time is wasted arguing over whether certain lines even fall within regulation.

Another pipeline watchdog, Lois Epstein, senior engineer at Cook Inletkeeper in Anchorage, said that in addition to removing the exemption for low-pressure pipelines, she wants to end the exemption for lines that aren’t in a commercially navigable waterway.

“I don’t think it can pass the laugh test that pipelines not be regulated for corrosion prevention,” Epstein said.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nonprofit think tank that does technical studies, said the DOT needs to put pipeline inspectors in the field instead of letting the oil industry police itself without oversight.

“That doesn’t work in the absence of some kind of hands-on audit and, in the case of bad problems, big fines and accountability,” he said.