Congress looks at Alaska pipeline

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2010

Alaska state Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said he's hoping that Alaska can benefit from BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster by spurring changes in BP's operations here to make sure a similar disaster doesn't hit Alaska.

Guttenberg told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee with jurisdiction over pipelines that the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. was cutting corners to save money, and placing the state at risk.

"Now is not the time for Alyeska to skimp on pipeline safety and integrity lest we have a significant spill event comparable to the Exxon Valdez spill or the recent Deep Water Horizon rupture," he said.

Alyeska's recent decision to move operations from Fairbanks to Anchorage, billed as a cost-saving and efficiency measure, will actually reduce oversight of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and increase emergency response times, Guttenberg said.

Representatives from Alyeska were also at the hearing, and defended the company's operation of the pipeline on which much of the state's economy and most of its government depends.

"Safety and integrity of the pipeline are core values at Alyeska, and a top priority for every employee," said Greg Jones, senior vice president in charge of Alyeska's Technical Support Division.

Jones said Alyeska has been continually improving its safety and environmental performance, with 2009 being its best year on record.

Guttenberg challenged how Alyeska defined pipeline "safety," and said its claims were based on a lack of bodily injuries to Alyeska personnel or contractors performing work on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

That may have little or low bearing on the likelihood of TAPS having a significant spill, he said.

"A pipeline operator could have an excellent worker safety record because there is little or no maintenance work being performed on the pipeline while at the same time it is about to fall apart in 20 locations," Guttenberg said.

Guttenberg, a former pipeline worker who said his first job on the pipeline was clearing brush on the right-of-way where the pipeline was to be built, said Alyeska's corporate culture discourages employees from bring safety concerns to management if they might cost money.

"I am here today speaking on behalf of the Alyeska employees who have a deep concern for the safety and integrity of the pipeline, but whose concerns have been largely ignored," he said.

Guttenberg is the House Minority Whip in Alaska, the No. 2 position in Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula's Minority Caucus.

Guttenberg said he last worked on the pipeline in 1996, but heard from current workers who were afraid to speak out.

"It became clear to me that Alyeska's "open-working-environment" was not working at all, allowing poor decisions to go unchecked that could have severe consequences for the state of Alaska," he said.

After the hearing, Guttenberg said from Washington he appreciated the subcommittee's attention to the TAPS issues, attention he said was due to the Gulf oil spill.

"You can shout up there or wherever you are about the issue, but until something happens nobody pays attention," he said.

BP is one of five companies that share ownership of the pipeline, but by itself it owns nearly 47 percent and often provides Alyeska's top executives.

Alaska Congressman Don Young, who serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but not the subcommittee that oversees pipelines, Thursday issued a statement defending Alyeska.

"This subcommittee is trying to use Alyeska as a scapegoat for what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico and it's wrong," said Rep. Young.

Young said Alyeska's safety measures worked exactly as they should during a recent spill at one of its pump stations, and that neither workers or wildlife were injured.

Calling Alyeska to the nation's capital to testify would only take time away from pipeline safety efforts, he said.

"To call these representatives here today to testify is not only a waste of time and money, but a slap in the face to all of the hard working Alaskans who maintain our pipeline," he said.

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