BP orders Prudhoe Bay safety review

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. has begun a wide-ranging review of safety, maintenance and environmental protection at the Prudhoe Bay oil field in response to concerns from workers and questions from Congress that the company is not operating the field safely.

Management contends the nation's largest oil field is safe, but in a letter to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., BP's western United States president Bob Malone acknowledged ''valid concerns'' of Prudhoe Bay employees, including a high failure rate on shut-in valves at oil wells during tests last winter.

The problems caught the attention of Dingell and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who played key roles in the investigation of shoddy operations of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the early 1990s. A key critic in that investigation has re-emerged in the Prudhoe investigation: Chuck Hamel, spokesman for the BP workers.

In response to queries from Dingell, Malone called on BP Alaska vice president Chris Phillips last month to head the investigation into the complaints. The investigation committee is composed of four BP hourly employees and seven others, including one-time whistleblower advocate Billie Garde. Company spokesman Ronnie Chappell said no Prudhoe Bay management representative will be on the review team.

Prudhoe Bay is a sprawling web of oil wells, pipelines and plants where gas and water are separated from oil before entering the pipeline.

On Monday, Hamel posted on the Internet a letter from BP workers itemizing maintenance problems and violations, including pressure valves and fire-suppression systems at oil processing centers that are not being inspected on schedule. Workers also contend that valves where pipelines enter oil processing centers do not seal.

Chappell agreed that oil and gas may leak past some valves at the oil gathering centers. This does not mean oil spills onto the ground. But it can make it difficult to isolate parts of the system and control production during an emergency.

Chappell said that because such leaks are common, oil production systems are designed to have multiple points to shut down oil and gas flow.

BP workers say the valves leak even during a systemwide shutdown.

Marc Kovac, a BP mechanic and vice chairman of an oil field union, said that during a maintenance shutdown of Gathering Center 2, 3 million cubic feet of natural gas per day bled through the system although the entire valve system was closed.

''We just flared it off,'' he said.

Kovac is a member of the BP investigation committee. He doubts the investigation will change the fundamental drive to cut costs and workers at Prudhoe, where production is declining.

''Unfortunately, we don't expect any big changes,'' he said.

In the past year, about 250 workers have been cut from the Prudhoe Bay work force. Last month, BP announced plans to cut $40 million in spending on maintenance and other field operations to meet spending commitments with its Prudhoe partners, Phillips Petroleum and Exxon Mobil.

Well valves are considered the first line of defense to stop the flow of oil and gas out of the ground. Last winter, tests turned up failure rates of more than 10 percent among well valves at six of 22 production pads on the western side of Prudhoe Bay. In one test, 30 percent of the valves at G-Pad failed to close fully.

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