Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Alaska Oil Pipeline: Corrosion, Corruption, and Pigs

It's simple economics: reduce supply, especially in times of increased demand, and you'll push prices--and profits--higher and higher. So when I heard yesterday's news about British Petroleum shutting down part of the Alaskan Pipeline, causing a significant drop in U.S. light sweet crude oil production, my first comment to the husband was: Oh boy...there go gas prices again. I suppose those record first-quarter profits weren't enough to keep them happy.

I wasn't alone in my cynicism. In fact, these oil business players are even dirtier than I ever imagined. Reporting for The Guardian, Greg Palast writes:
Is the Alaska Pipeline corroded? You bet it is. Has been for more than a decade. Did British Petroleum shut the pipe yesterday to turn a quick buck on its negligence, to profit off the disaster it created? Just ask the “smart pig.”

Years ago, I had the unhappy job of leading an investigation of British Petroleum’s management of the Alaska pipeline system. I was working for the Chugach villages, the Alaskan Natives who own the shoreline slimed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker grounding.

Even then, courageous government inspectors and pipeline workers were screaming about corrosion all through the pipeline. I say “courageous” because BP, which owns 46% of the pipe and is supposed to manage the system, had a habit of hunting down and destroying the careers of those who warn of pipeline problems.


Why shut the pipe now? The timing of a sudden inspection and fix of a decade-long problem has a suspicious smell. A precipitous shutdown in mid-summer, in the middle of Middle East war(s), is guaranteed to raise prices and reap monster profits for BP. The price of crude jumped $2.22 a barrel on the shutdown news to over $76. How lucky for BP which sells four million barrels of oil a day. Had BP completed its inspection and repairs a couple years back — say, after Dan Lawn’s tenth warning — the oil market would have hardly noticed.

But $2 a barrel is just the beginning of BP’s shut-down bonus. The Alaskan oil was destined for the California market which now faces a supply crisis at the very height of the summer travel season. The big winner is ARCO petroleum, the largest retailer in the Golden State. ARCO is a 100%-owned subsidiary of … British Petroleum.

BP could have fixed the pipeline problem this past winter, after their latest corrosion-caused oil spill. But then ARCO would have lost the summertime supply-squeeze windfall.

Enron Corporation was infamous for deliberately timing repairs to maximize profit. Would BP also manipulate the market in such a crude manner? Some US prosecutors think they did so in the US propane market.


BP claims the profitable timing of its Alaska pipe shutdown can be explained because they’ve only now run a “smart pig” through the pipes to locate the corrosion. The “pig” is an electronic drone that BP should have been using continuously, though they had not done so for 14 years. The fact that, in the middle of an oil crisis, they’ve run it through now, forcing the shutdown, reminds me, when I consider Lord Browne’s closeness to George Bush, that the company’s pig is indeed, very, very smart.

Most Americans, and most American businesses, continue to suffer as a result of skyrocketing oil prices. But not all. As Orwell wrote, Some pigs are more equal than others...

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