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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”)