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Pressure’s On for a Pipeline Fix

Times Staff Writer

Hard by the Beaufort Sea, in 30-degree wind chill and surrounded by an otherworldly tableau of bright orange natural gas flares, caribou herds and wisps of arctic fog, Kemp Copeland wants everyone to know that he’s working as fast as he can.

As field operations manager at BP Exploration Alaska’s massive oil complex here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the northern edge of Alaska, the 45-year-old Texas native oversees repairs to a pipeline delivery system that was abruptly hobbled this week by the discovery of severe “microbiological corrosion” in parts of the pipeline complex.

The near-shutdown in oil deliveries from Prudhoe Bay caused a sudden spike in oil prices on jittery world markets and has prompted virtual chaos in Alaska’s state government, 89% of which is funded by oil revenues from North Slope fields. On Friday, a beleaguered BP announced that while repairs are underway, it would continue production of oil from the western side of the Prudhoe Bay field.

The problem with the pipeline has become a factor in the state’s raucous political scene, where some recent polls have suggested that Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, who ordered a blanket hiring freeze in state government on Wednesday, is running third in a three-candidate GOP primary scheduled for Aug. 22.

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While Murkowski and other Alaskans -- as well as oil traders across the globe -- wait for word on how long the repairs will take, Copeland cautions that he has no easy answers.

“We are looking at every available option, including bypass options,” said Copeland.

“However, our number one priority is safety,” added Copeland, a wiry, balding man whose Ross Perot twang mixes with a Jack Webb “just the facts, ma’am” delivery.

Critics say the corrosion problem is only the tip of a potential iceberg as the pipeline system nears its 30th birthday next year.

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Industry officials sharply dispute that view, arguing that they carry out a rigorous inspection system for an 800-mile line that has delivered 14 billion barrels to the southern Alaska terminus at Valdez, while leaking less than the equivalent of one teaspoon in a swimming pool.

Copeland said about 200 BP employees were involved in responding to the spill and in emergency spot inspections for many of the 1,500 miles of pipeline that snake through the

Prudhoe Bay complex.

Those lines constitute a feeder system to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is managed by a separate consortium and was not the source of the recent spill or one in March that also spurred criticism of BP’s Alaska operations.

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Copeland and other BP officials here describe the problem as the result of an unusual buildup of bacteria in one of the smaller feeder lines; bacteria generally are flushed through the system and don’t accumulate.

The bacteria left a corrosive waste, causing the leak, said company officials, who added that they did not fully understand what caused the buildup.

About 15 barrels spilled, said Amanda Stark of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Workers in white chemical suits used vacuums and a rope-line absorption system as they cleaned the dark stain that had spread across about 6,000 square feet of tundra.

The spill, detected on Sunday, is considered relatively minor, but the potential for corrosion problems elsewhere caused BP to shut down operations throughout much of the complex, triggering the price spike Monday. (The price per barrel actually fell slightly for the week.)

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BP officials said it could take weeks and perhaps months to replace the line and bring Prudhoe Bay back to full operations -- and that is assuming that inspectors do not find similar problems elsewhere.

The company said Friday that it hoped to install 16 miles of new pipe by early next year. “We think we have a very robust maintenance and inspection program,” Copeland said. “Clearly we have a gap in our program, and going forward we will make changes.”

Environmentalists disputed that view.

“The oil industry has been asking us to trust them to protect Alaska’s fragile arctic environment, but they have not yet earned that trust,” said Peter Rafle, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society.

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Murkowski promised that he would “hold BP accountable” for the millions of dollars in uncollected revenue that is plaguing the state budget.

But he also sought to downplay the long-term problems posed by the shutdown, telling reporters here Thursday after touring the complex, “You know, a lot of people have already concluded that we’ve had a catastrophe, and we haven’t.”

In addition to the immediate problems posed by the shutdown, Murkowski is facing other issues that could plague his reelection bid.

Many voters say they are perturbed by his actions after he was elected four years ago, vacating the U.S. Senate seat he held for 22 years. Soon after his inauguration he appointed his daughter, Lisa, then a state representative, to replace him in the Senate.

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The governor faces a complex battle over possible changes in state tax laws designed to spur construction of a natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Canada.

He is also the target of many Alaskans’ frustration over the state’s inability to gain federal approval for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of here.

Polls show a majority of Alaskans support the bid by President Bush and many Republican senators to open the refuge to drilling, but the bid has been blocked by largely Democratic opposition, reflecting the wishes of many Americans to see the wilderness protected.

Among those working Friday to fix the pipeline leak, Jason Gauf, 36, of Spokane, Wash., and Steve Ketchum, 33, of Longview, Texas, were out on the tundra with the operator of a giant crane placing a protective sleeve around the faulty pipe.

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The pay for workers here includes a lot of overtime, allowing some to make $100,000 or more annually for enduring the often-brutal conditions. Temperatures routinely dip to 20 degrees below during a winter when the sun doesn’t rise at all for six weeks on either side of the winter solstice, Dec. 21. Conversely, it doesn’t set during much of the summer. Slightly more oil is produced during the winter months because the turbines operate more efficiently in colder weather.

Like many of the 4,000 Prudhoe Bay employees, Ketchum works a two-week-on, two-week-off schedule, sleeping at the large company barracks after his work shifts.

And on his off-weeks, he knows exactly what he’s going to be doing: “I’m off to Texas.”


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