Cook Inlet Keeper report shows decrease in oil spills, but ...

Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Cook Inlet oil pipeline operators have shown improved performance over the past year in preventing spills, and annual spill volumes have fallen from more than 50,000 gallons to less than 1,200 gallons per year, according to Cook Inlet Keeper, a citizen-based organization that monitors the inlet watershed.

In a Nov. 4 press release, Keeper said a year after it issued its five-year comprehensive report (1997-2002) on oil pipeline spills in the Cook Inlet watershed, new data shows some improvements and some areas that remain unchanged.

The newest pipeline data is available online at

The earlier study "Lurking Below: Oil and Gas pipeline Problems in the Cook Inlet Watershed" was released in September 2002. Cook Inlet Keeper Oil and Gas Industry specialist and Alaska-licensed engineer Lois Epstein was the report's author.

In "Lurking Below," Epstein said pipeline spills had released oil at an annual rate of 52,324 gallons. In the one-year update just released, that annual rate had fallen to 1,138 gallons. In both reports, Unocal and Forest Oil were responsible for the largest spill volumes, but each showed significant improvement in the latter study in terms of volume. However, in the latter study, they were the only Cook Inlet-area pipeline operators reporting spills during the study period.

Efforts to get comments from Unocal and Forest Oil officials regarding the report or their apparent improvements were unsuccessful.

Epstein reported the following overall improvements: "No offshore pipeline releases; no corrosion-related releases; much smaller annual and average release volumes; and XTO Energy, Tesoro and BP reporting zero releases."

In areas considered basically unchanged, Epstein noted that the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Swanson River Field's gathering and wastewater lines had about half the releases.

In all, 10 pipeline releases were reported for the 12 months between Sept. 15, 2002, and Sept. 15, 2003. That compares to the 66 releases analyzed in the 60 months covered in the first report.

"This is a slight improvement in overall spill rate, though it's too early to say this shows a trend," Epstein said.

Unocal and Forest Oil accounted for the 10 spills reported during the study period five each with Unocal responsible for 80 percent of the volume and Forest Oil the other 20 percent.

Epstein said those were disproportionately high spill rates considering that Unocal and Forest Oil represented only 39 percent and 1 percent of the Cook Inlet industry's pipeline mileage, respectively. Nearly one-third of the spills were credited to "unknown" causes. Human error and maintenance problems resulted in 20 percent of the releases, according to the press release.

A report card of sorts accompanying the earlier analysis gave Unocal and Forest Oil "poor" marks, while XTO Energy's performance was considered "fair." Receiving an "excellent" rating were Cook Inlet Pipe Line, Kenai Pipe Line and Signature (now Anchorage Fueling and Service Co., or AFSC, which pipes fuel to Ted Stevens International Airport.)

No similar report card was included in the later study, but Epstein was encouraged by the overall reduction in spill rates and volumes. For instance, XTO Energy, Tesoro and BP were responsible for 8 percent, 2 percent and 2 percent of the total volume of spilled oil during the 1997-2002 study, and all three reported no spills in the latest study.

Meanwhile, Cook Inlet Pipe Line or the Kenai Pipe Line reported no spills in either study. She speculated that a federal integrity management rule now in place in Cook Inlet governing offshore facilities might have helped produce the industry improvements.

"If industry is reacting to publicity and the new federal integrity management rules by reducing offshore spills into Cook Inlet to zero in the past year, then that's a good thing," she said. "Governmental regulations now need to address the remaining pipeline problems, including gathering-line spills, unknown spill causes and human error and maintenance problems."

Epstein called on regulators to focus on developing standards for unregulated gathering and wastewater lines.

The studies will continue, she said.

"Now that we have a methodology down, hopefully, if spill numbers go down, it will take less time," she said.

Epstein presented her new findings at a September conference in Girdwood held by the Air and Waste Management Association, Pacific Northwest International (US/ Canada) section.

The Federal Office of Pipeline Safety will hold a public meeting Dec. 16 and 17 in Anchorage that will focus on the need for gathering-line regulation.

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