Commentary: Fairbanks News Miner, December 20, 2003
  
Alyeska plan should be rejected

By WALTER B. PARKER
 
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. says it needs government approval to amend its oil spill prevention and response plan for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline system before the end of the year. But critics, including a veteran Alyeska field worker and spill response expert, believe the proposal is premature.
 
Alyeska says that immediate approval of the cost-cutting proposal, dubbed "Strategic Reconfiguration," is needed so that the pipeline company can begin automating pump stations and making plans to move workers from several pump stations along the 800-mile pipeline corridor to regional response centers.
Government officials have promised a decision by year's end.
 
The plan would put large stretches of the pipeline and several pump stations entirely in the hands of computers and remote-control operations. But human eyes are essential to the prevention and immediate detection of leaks (Alyeska's leak detection system has never detected a spill), while the speedy arrival of responders is essential to effective spill containment.
 
Moreover, Alyeska's latest revision to the Strategic Reconfiguration proposal reveals a fundamental flaw. When government officials requested better information on how the plan would work, Alyeska responded with a promise to conduct two studies. One is a risk analysis of the pipeline operations; the other is an analysis of the fate and effect of oil in fast-moving inland streams.
 
Because these studies are crucial to spill response planning, they should have been completed before Alyeska finished its Strategic Reconfiguration proposal. Although these studies would take more than a year to complete, Alyeska wants plan approval now in order to start making immediate commitments to hardware and physical changes.
 
The unseemly haste on Strategic Reconfiguration contrasts with improvements in pipeline spill response promised after Alyeska failed to stop a bullet hole leak for 36 hours in October 2001. The company response plan erroneously told spill responders that a bullet hole clamp was readily available for such emergencies.
 
The plan also failed to provide instructions for an emergency response technique called back-pumping, which relieves the pressure forcing oil out of the line. Operating without adequate guidance or training in back-pumping at Livengood, the responders caused significant damage to pipeline supports 125 miles from the spill site.
 
Twenty-six months later, these defects in the Alyeska response plan have yet to be corrected.
 
Veteran Alyeska spill responder Ronald Miller has pointed out that the 6-inch bypass valves that are used in back-pumping need testing to assure that they are usable. The valve issue is one of 18 concerns that Miller says he attempted to raise internally before filing his 170-page "Differing Professional Opinion" document publicly Nov. 30.
 
According to Miller, corrosion and maintenance problems call into question the condition of the 48-inch mainline valves and the 6-inch bypass valves on the pipeline system; both are essential to pipeline safety and effective spill mitigation.
 
Alyeska says the company already has a government-approved valve maintenance plan. But Alyeska officials privately admit that Miller's valve concerns may be valid. They just don't want operational details such as those Miller has raised to get in the way of their plans.
What's the hurry?
 
One reason may be the terms of the 1985 pipeline tariff settlement agreement.
 
In addition to an inflation-adjusted per-barrel profit allowance that already makes the pipeline an extremely lucrative operation for its owners, that agreement also allows the pipeline owners to earn a handsome rate of return on new capital investments.
 
According to analyst Richard Fineberg, who reviewed Alyeska's Strategic Reconfiguration plan for the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, under the terms of the tariff agreement, the pipeline owners reap a capital improvement bonus of more than 17 percent per dollar invested.
 
And, Fineberg adds, re-investment in the pipeline allows the major North Slope producers, who also own more than 90 percent of the pipeline, to reduce their federal income tax on profits from high oil prices.
Government monitors should not approve Alyeska's mercenary proposal unless and until the pipeline company can demonstrate that Strategic Reconfiguration does not sacrifice environmental protection and that the necessary planning is thorough and complete.

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Walter B. Parker of Anchorage is a member of the board of directors of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility. He directed the technical staff for the State Pipeline Coordinators Office during pipeline construction and served as chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, which investigated the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

 

(This guest opinion piece appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, Dec. 18, 2003, headlined Spill plan shouldn't take effect yet.)