Part of Prudhoe Bay still pumping, for now

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After announcing that “unexpectedly severe corrosion” of its Alaska pipelines would force a partial shutdown of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, BP is continuing production in the Western Operating Area, where 120,000 barrels of oil are being produced per day.

The company has completed shutdown of the Eastern Operating Area, where data from a “smart pig,” an automated inspection machine that travels inside the pipe, revealed 16 anomalies in 12 locations Aug. 4. Subsequent inspections found a small oil spill and five additional holes in the line.

With the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, BP is looking at options for safely continuing operations in portions of the Prudhoe Bay field. BP has focused inspections in the west, devoting more than 150 personnel to strip, inspect and monitor the pipeline. A decision is expected soon on whether the western area will be shut down as well. Production from the eastern half of the Prudhoe Bay field will not resume until it is approved by the federal government.

The company decided Aug. 8 to replace 16 miles of transit lines, which carry crude from the wells to the main pipeline, and has ordered 51,000 feet of pipe, about 10 miles, for that purpose. In addition, BP has resumed drilling and well-work operations on the North Slope. BP announced that it has bought more than 3.5 million barrels of crude oil to supply BP’s West Coast refineries in the short term, and it expects no supply disruption for the West Coast during this time.

“Our priorities moving forward are to assure the safety and integrity of our operating infrastructure, minimize impact on the environment, continue the cooperative working relationship with the relevant agencies and restore production as soon as it is safely – and I reinforce safely – possible,” said Bob Malone, chairman and president of BP America.

Critics say BP has not adequately maintained the aging oilfield, which produces 3.5 percent less oil each year. The pipeline flow is down to 30 feet a minute, about a fourth as much as in 1989. BP acknowledges that pipes in the eastern region haven’t been cleaned in 14 years. A federal grand jury in Anchorage, Alaska, is investigating an earlier, much larger spill, when 267,000 gallons of crude gushed from BP’s pipeline in March.

Most immediately affected by the shutdown is the state of Alaska, which relies on oil taxes for 86 percent of its state budget. The governor has imposed a hiring freeze on all state jobs.