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BP’s ‘Big Problem’

NO BIG OIL COMPANY HAS GONE to greater lengths to project an enlightened, innovative image than BP. But after London-based BP began shutting down its Alaskan oilfield Sunday after finding miles of corroded pipelines, the company’s initials evoked two words BP’s marketers probably don’t like: “Big Problem.”

There has been plenty of debate recently about the degree of industry culpability for rising gas prices. But here was a case of one company’s neglect being directly responsible for the latest spike. The field in question accounts for 8% of U.S. daily oil production.

BP has worked hard to establish itself as a bona fide green company, one that is doing its part to head off global warming by investing in clean, alternative energy. But any accolades for this forward-looking approach are gravely undermined by a trio of recent disasters: a deadly Texas refinery explosion in 2005, one of the largest Alaska pipeline spills ever in March and now the unprecedented closure of the nation’s largest oilfield because of astonishingly poor maintenance. BP is inadvertently advancing the cause of alternative energy by providing yet another reminder of the dangers of our excessive reliance on oil.

The Alaska shutdown came just two days after BP executives wrapped up a U.S. tour to apologize for the first two disasters. Although it’s big of BP to apologize, it has much to be sorry for. Oil companies typically run an electronic device called a “smart pig” through pipelines every week or two to check for problems; BP, it turns out, had not “pigged the pipelines” that feed oil from the field to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline since 1992, even to make sure its alternative approach to inspection was working. Even after the March spill, it took a federal order to finally run the pig -- and discover the corrosion.

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BP will probably -- and deservedly -- face costly consequences for its neglect. But going forward, Congress and federal regulators need to enact tougher regulations for all feeder pipelines. As for BP, restoring its reputation demands a thorough review of worker safety and pipeline maintenance. Expect BP to ramp up its we’re-warm-and-fuzzy marketing budget, but it may have to settle for less profit (the company’s net income was $7.3 billion this last quarter, up 30%) if it wants to act more responsibly in the future.

The Texas disaster was more devastating on a human level, and the March oil spill was worse environmentally. But even a partial oilfield closure hurts U.S. consumers where they feel it most, at the gas pump. We’ve already seen what hurricanes can do to oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, and how war and unrest can affect oil production in Iraq and across Africa. Now we realize what shoddy maintenance of aging oil infrastructure can do for domestic supplies.

Yes, to borrow one of BP’s slogans, it is time to look “beyond petroleum” -- and not just to avert global warming. Achieving energy security will mean relying less on oil, wherever it comes from.


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