End of land lease nears for Alaska pipeline, but much oil remains

Experts say structure can be kept up, though safety concerns on rise

April 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LIVENGOOD, Alaska - More than 13 billion barrels of oil have coursed down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline since it opened in 1977, and still the oil flows - from the Arctic Ocean, across the tundra, through mountains and forests and over or under hundreds of rivers and streams, south to the Gulf of Alaska through the 800-mile-long, 4-foot-wide pipe.

But even as Congress discusses a plan for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that could yield billions of gallons more, another debate is looming as the pipeline approaches the end of its 30-year lease on federal, state and native lands.

Regulators are examining whether the aging structure can be safely operated beyond that period. At the same time, with two big spills in the pipeline caused by sabotage, including one a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, the regulators are also wondering about something else: How vulnerable is the structure to attack?

Although down from a peak of 2 million barrels a day in the late 1980s, the pipeline still moves a million barrels a day, nearly a fifth of the country's domestically produced oil. The North Slope has enough oil to keep the pipeline full for years, and perhaps for decades if Congress yields to President Bush's desire to open the Arctic refuge to drilling.

The firm that operates the structure, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., says that though some engineers thought the pipeline would operate only 25 to 30 years, there is no reason to impose such a deadline.

"Bit by bit, piece by piece, we can maintain it virtually forever," said Elden Johnson, an engineer on the pipeline and one of its designers.

The pipeline spills, the company likes to say, represent just 0.0000025 percent of all the oil delivered - less than a teaspoon in a swimming pool.

But with the pipeline constantly subjected to corrosion, shifting in the permafrost and other factors that could damage the pipe or the 78,000 vertical pilings that support it, environmental groups and some current and former pipeline workers express fear that its relatively good safety record might not hold.

"With proper maintenance, yes, the pipeline could last forever," said Ross Coen, executive director of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility. "But are they really willing to spend billions of dollars for maintenance when there may not be all that much oil left to send down the pipeline?"

In 1999, six employees of the company who did not give their names wrote to federal officials arguing that neglect and maintenance cuts on the pipeline could lead to disaster.

"It won't be a single gasket, or valve, or wire, or procedure or person that will cause the catastrophe," wrote the employees, who said they all had at least 10 years of experience on the pipeline. "It will be a combination of small, perhaps seemingly inconsequential events and conditions that will lead to the accident that we're all dreading and powerless to prevent."

The Anchorage Daily News, the state's biggest newspaper, though an editorial proponent of drilling in the Arctic, has raised concerns about aging equipment on the pipeline and elsewhere in the Alaskan oil fields.

"There's a pattern here that looks chillingly close to the inattention and neglect that preceded the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989," the newspaper said in November.

Alyeska said the pipeline was designed to minimize spills and damage from sabotage. Computers can shut down the line if an unexpected drop in pressure is detected, limiting the size of any spill.

But the pipeline's vulnerability was demonstrated here Oct. 4, when, authorities say, Daniel Carson Lewis, 37, fired his hunting rifle at the pipeline, causing a leak that forced 6,800 barrels (about 285,600 gallons) onto the tundra and that has cost at least $7 million to clean up. Lewis was convicted of a federal weapons charge.

The incident caused the second-largest spill in the pipeline's history. It was the first time bullets had punctured the double-steel-walled pipeline, though it has been fired at at least 50 times, according to Alyeska records. The largest spill took place in 1978, shortly after the pipeline opened, when vandals blew up a section, spilling 700,000 barrels of oil. No one was ever arrested.

Although the October incident was not considered a terrorist act, officials fear that the pipeline is an inviting target. In testimony to Congress, R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, said the pipeline could be "easily disrupted" and posed "a very vulnerable situation indeed."

Alyeska says it will not discuss specific security measures. Though it conducts regular ground and helicopter inspections, the company concedes that there is no way to monitor every foot of the pipeline.

Alaska's budget problems recently raised a new concern. Officials said they had to cut back operation of the Dalton Highway security checkpoint, near the Yukon River north of here, from 24 hours a day to 12. The highway parallels the pipeline for much of the way to the North Slope.

The Joint Pipeline Office in Anchorage, a consortium of state and federal agencies that oversees pipeline operations, says its safety and security record is good.

"This is probably the most-monitored pipeline in the world," said Rhea DoBosh, a spokeswoman for the office. "The pipeline is being operated safely, and it is in good shape."

A report released by the office recently generally praised Alyeska's response to the shooting.

But Richard Fineberg, an environmental consultant in Fairbanks, said the report went too easy on the repair operation.

"The authors of this toothless report are clearly too close to see the forest for the oil-blackened trees they were supposed to protect," he said.

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