Spilling safety details

Review shows inlet pipelines are old but operate safely

Posted: Monday, August 28, 2006


  Workers excavate contaminated soil at the scene of a fuel pipeline leak near the Swanson River in 2001. Clarion file photo

Workers excavate contaminated soil at the scene of a fuel pipeline leak near the Swanson River in 2001.

Clarion file photo

The revelation by BP earlier this month that it had neglected pipeline safety on the North Slope, resulting in a partial shutdown of its pipeline delivery facilities, has increased interest in the condition of the roughly 160 miles of aging pipe comprising the far older Cook Inlet pipeline system. Some of that system is more than 40 years old.

A recent independent review of voluntary annual reports submitted by oil producers indicates the aging sub-sea oil pipeline system beneath Cook Inlet is being operated in a safe manner, according to the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, which paid for the study.

Last week, CIRCAC Executive Director Mike Munger said a year-long review conducted by Brown Corrosion Services Inc. that was completed in late 2005 looked at the oil industry’s pipeline integrity management practices, concentrating on three areas of concern for sub-sea pipelines: external corrosion, internal corrosion and physical damage.

Munger said the review determined that operators were using their sub-sea pipelines in a safe manner compliant with state and federal regulations. CIRCAC funded the review through a $22,000 grant provided by the Kenai Peninsula Borough in 2002, Munger said.

A series of spills in the late 1990s helped prompt creation of an annual reporting program in which Cook Inlet crude oil producers provide data relating to the state of inlet pipelines to CIRCAC’s Prevention, Response, Operations and Safety Committee (PROPS). It was that data that Brown reviewed.

According to an executive summary of the review, with few exceptions, operators were “using the most advanced data management, inspection, monitoring, testing and reporting technology currently available.”

However, the report also noted that within the industry there was debate about what constituted pipeline integrity management, and that “further changes, redefinitions and additions” to current practices could be forthcoming.

Indeed, revisions to pipeline regulations are now in the works, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Today, a variety of cleaning and pipeline inspection technologies meant to ensure the integrity of the lines are employed in the Cook Inlet pipeline system, Munger said.

All operators in Cook Inlet run cleaning pigs on a regular basis to keep lines free of sludge. For instance, XTO Energy runs cleaning pigs six times a week from their platforms to their onshore facilities, Munger noted.

Electronic devices called “smart pigs” that travel through the line inspecting for leaks, corrosion and other problems, are used to inspect some pipes.

Munger said other parts of the system, including XTO’s crude oil pipes, couldn’t handle smart pigs because of their design. XTO is currently researching the smart pigging options that can be uses in the lines to accommodate the tight-radius bends in the piping, he said.

Federal regulations accept the pressure testing of pipelines, and that method is also employed in Cook Inlet.

“All the lines in Cook Inlet are cathodically protected to minimize corrosion damage to the pipelines,” Munger added.

Though much of the system is old, the age of the oil field itself contributes, in a way, to the level of safety, according to the Brown review. The original lines were designed for larger volumes, higher pressures and higher velocities than are produced today by the depleted reservoirs under Cook Inlet.

“Based upon present production data as reported, the assets are over-designed for today’s rates and thus safety margins are increased substantially,” the executive summary said.

New regulations coming soon

The Cook Inlet oil industry is about to come under new provisions in a revamped set of spill-prevention regulations, according to Craig Wilson, an environmental program specialist with the DEC’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response.

Part of that revision includes new regulations that expand DEC’s authority over flow lines, also known as gathering lines — pipes that carry a mix of crude oil, gas, sand and other materials from the wellhead to processing facilities.

“We’ve found, upon research, that these lines have corrosion problems and are a significant spill hazard,” Wilson said. “They are not regulated by any other agency, so we’ve developed new regulations to address an identified problem.”

The new regulations setting minimum industry standards for design, construction, operations, maintenance and record keeping for flow lines were adopted by the DEC commissioner’s office in June and are undergoing regulatory review by the Alaska Department of Law. Presuming they meet muster there, they will be sent to Lt. Gov. Loren Leman where they will get still more legal review. If acceptable, they would become effective 30 days after Leman affixes his signature.

The effort to revamp the spill prevention regulations began about two years ago and the process has been contentious, meeting resistance from the oil industry, which sees them as an additional regulatory burden.

“We are expanding regulatory authority into somewhere it has not been before,” Wilson said.

Who’s job is it to protect the pipes?

Alaska has no pipeline inspection program of its own, and depends on the industry to do that job. The reasons, Wilson said, include high costs and limited resources.

“Also, there is some limitation in terms of federal pre-emptive authority,” he said. “Certain areas are expressly reserved for the feds and the state can’t go there.”

For instance, control over commerce crossing state lines is the domain of the federal government, and that includes the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. No state may institute standards for interstate pipelines, Wilson said.

However, the Cook Inlet pipeline system is an intrastate structure, and while legal questions remain about how far the state can go to regulate intrastate pipelines, the state believes it is within its rights to regulate the industry’s flow lines.

Asked for his assessment of operations in the Cook Inlet system, Wilson said only that DEC had not had major problems with Cook Inlet pipelines recently.

“Given the problems on the North Slope, however, it is reasonable to assume that additional regulations will come out of that” that will cover the entire state, he said.

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