BP isn’t only polluter to foul Alaska

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

British Petroleum caused barely a ripple in announcing late last week that a troubled compressor had forced it to cut oil production at Prudhoe Bay, already halved by a leaky pipeline, by almost half again. Nor has it been easy to find headlines about the alarming disclosures from various investigations into BP’s record on maintaining equipment and following regulations.

How quickly we Americans, and therefore our media, lose interest in a story when the focus shifts away from gasoline prices and toward such trivial issues as energy security, corporate stewardship, environmental protection, government oversight. Even now, the Interior Department is preparing to turn over fresh, fragile parts of Alaska’s North Slope for oil development by BP and other companies. Yawn. Turn the page.

To those who have followed Arctic oil development even cursorily, whether from an environmental perspective or any other, the infrastructural creakiness spotlighted by BP’s Aug. 6 shutdown of its eastern pipeline is not a breaking story but an oozing one. Oil spills large and small are daily occurrences all over the North Slope, and it takes a really big one _ like last March’s five-day, 267,000-gallon leak from BP’s western Prudhoe pipeline _ to get much attention outside Alaska.

The rest result in official write-ups and fines that become a cost of doing business in the Alaskan oilfields, and perhaps create the misimpression that these pipeline operations are tightly monitored and regulated. In fact, the federal government limits effective oversight to pipelines whose high pressure and/or urban locations would mean catastrophe in event of a serious leak. The low-pressure, mostly rural lines that move oil around in Alaska are subject to much more lenient scrutiny, in which federal inspectors partner with industry-friendlier state agencies.

This, then, is the environment in which BP may have been within the rules to operate a sludged-up, corroded pipeline for as long as 14 years, and well beyond its designed lifespan, without an internal inspection by electronic "smart pigs" _ despite plenty of external evidence that corrosion was thinning its walls to the danger point. Indeed, investigators are now reviewing allegations that BP not only brushed aside warnings from its own employees and consultants on this risk, but gamed its regulatory reporting to minimize the situation.

So naturally a number of oil-friendly administration officials and members of Congress are calling for stricter pipeline regulation, a good move, while simultaneously stressing that BP’s performance distinguishes it as a singularly bad oil company, a claim for which we will need more evidence to be persuaded.

After all, many of these new critics remain proponents of the fictional notion that advanced drilling technologies mean oil wells and wildlife preservation can coexist all across the Arctic _ ignoring a decades-old record to the contrary, in which BP has hardly been the sole contributor. Oil production is an inherently dirty business, and the special challenges of Arctic production can’t be wished away.

Nor will we join those now mocking BP’s past efforts to spotlight the looming catastrophe of global warming and to promote sustainable alternatives to its own products. These were important things for an oil-pumping behemoth to say, and BP’s messages were engaging and constructive. If anything, the company’s current disgrace should only reinforce this nation’s resolve to heed BP and move beyond petroleum.