ATIGUN PASS (AP) -- As it worms its way south from the North Slope, the trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline looms large on the flat tundra before being dwarfed by the mountains of the Brooks Range.
A glinting gray tube of steel, it follows the contours of the land then disappears beneath the earth as it travels through this steep mountain pass.
Walking beside the line, Bill Howitt sounds like a proud parent as he points out features designed to protect it from earthquakes and corrosion.
''The more I'm with this pipeline, the more I'm impressed with the original designers,'' said Howitt, a senior vice president with the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the line. Alyeska is a consortium owned by BP, Exxon Mobil, Phillips Petroleum, Williams Alaska, Amerada Hess and Unocal.
Howitt, an engineer, has worked on the pipeline since construction days.
''One of the things I didn't realize back then was just how robust and how elegant the pipeline is. It functions as designed year after year.''
Whether they see it as elegant or an eyesore most Alaskans have come to accept this 800-mile-long artery as part of the landscape and they welcome the oil wealth it delivers. Oil taxes and royalties account for 81 percent of state revenue.
But regulators and oil industry critics will be taking a harder look at the line over the next year as state and federal governments consider renewal of the 30-year lease for the land the pipeline crosses. The lease expires in 2004.
The lease renewal process will include a study of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the oil pipeline; its physical condition; and whether Alyeska has complied with regulations in operating the line.
''It's like peeling an onion,'' said Jerry Brossia, the top federal official with the Joint Pipeline Office, the state-federal agency that oversees pipeline operations.
''What's most important is making sure that the pipeline's critical systems are well-maintained and that Alyeska has business processes in place to keep them well-maintained as we go forward,'' Brossia said.
The agency is hosting a series of meetings around the state this month and next to take public comment on the lease renewal. A draft Environmental Impact Statement will be published next July and more public comment will be taken. A final Environmental Impact Statement is due late next year and a decision on renewal could be made 30 days after that.
The pipeline carries 17 percent of the nation's oil production. Given its importance in helping to meet the nation's energy needs, both pipeline critics and regulators expect that the pipeline lease will probably be renewed.
But depending upon what the study finds, Alyeska could find itself operating with new restrictions and the lease could be renewed for less than the 30 years Alyeska has requested.
When the pipeline was first proposed a generation ago, it touched off impassioned debate about the environmental impact of resource development in the virgin wilderness of Alaska. Critics feared its effects on wildlife and habitat. Would caribou pass under the pipe? Would the heat of the oil melt the tundra? What about leaks and spills?
In the 24 years since the pipeline began operating, the caribou population has thrived and heat transfer units atop the pipeline's pilings protect the permafrost. The worst oil spill occurred not along the pipeline itself, but in Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in March 1989.
As the lease renewal process gets under way, environmentalists have new concerns. There are fears that global warming could melt permafrost, causing instability in some of the 78,000 vertical pilings that support the 420 miles of above-ground pipe.
''As permafrost conditions in Alaska change, what does this do to the structural integrity of the above-ground sections of the line?'' asks Ross Coen of the Fairbanks-based Alaska Center for Environmental Responsibility.
A bigger question in the minds of critics is just how long the pipeline can last.
''Are they going to be willing to spend billions of dollars for maintenance when there's only three billion dollars worth of oil left up there on the slope?''
Coen would like to see a citizens' advisory council set up to keep watch on pipeline operations, similar to the citizen panels established in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill which monitor oil industry activities in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.
Alyeska says that, with proper maintenance, monitoring and repair the pipeline can last indefinitely.
The company spends about $210 million dollars a year on pipeline operations. About $150 million of that is for maintenance, Howitt said.
Pipeline crews check the line each week by helicopter and maintenance coordinators do a ground inspection once a month. Every three years a corrosion monitoring pig -- a high-tech device that uses ultrasonic imaging to measures the thickness of the pipe wall -- is sent through the line.
''Some critics try to paint a picture that this thing has just been sitting here for 25 years. Nothing could be farther from the truth,'' said Steve Jones, who heads Alyeska's lease renewal effort.
This year, the company has been digging up 21 areas of buried pipeline, sandblasting the exterior and checking the extent of exterior corrosion before recoating and reburying the line.
Alyeska officials take pains to point out that there has never been a leak or spill on the main 800-mile line due to corrosion.
That hasn't been the case in the aging North Slope oil fields, where most of the thousands of miles of pipes that transport oil are on private lands and the state and federal governments have no direct regulatory authority.
There, corrosion has been a persistent problem as oil companies pump large amounts of seawater underground to boost oil flow as production falls. The seawater and gritty sand that come out of the ground with the oil weaken welds and split pipes. More than 92,000 gallons of saltwater and crude oil spilled from a ruptured line at the Kuparuk field in April.
BP and Phillips Petroleum spend tens of millions of dollars each year to combat the problem and have been using infrared monitoring and x-ray technology to find weakness in the pipes.
Howitt says the impurities that cause problems in the oil field pipelines have been filtered out of the oil before it's sent down the trans-Alaska pipeline, so corrosion inside the main line has not been a problem.
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