PRUDHOE BAY, ALASKA
UP where nearly 2 million gallons of hot oil are drawn through the permafrost every day to begin the 800-mile trip to the port of Valdez, the talk is of pigs. Not the squealy bacon type, but mechanical computer-directed devices motoring through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and looking for corrosion.You may be hearing more about these "smart pigs" as the debate over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration - a key part of the Bush administration's "national energy strategy plays out on Capitol Hill. When the pipeline opened for business in 1977, the Aleyska consortium of seven companies that built and now operate it expressed confidence that their corrosion protection program would "insure the integrity of the pipeline ... over an operating life of 30 years." In other words, until the known oil reserves ran out. But just 12 years later, the operators had identified 827 suspected weak spots on the outside of the pipeline. As of last September, 65 percent of the 562 "anomolies" that had been investiga ted were confirmed as being corroded. Alyeska has also found 1,200 areas where there may be internal corrosion. Meanwhile the push is on to extract new oil reserves from the wildlife refuge and other parts of the North Slope and keep the flow going for decades more. What's particularly troubling about the pipeline's problems is that until the Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped its 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound two years ago, state and federal regulators pretty much "relied on Alyeska to police itself." That's the conclusion of an investigation by the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) released Monday. As indicators of "a lack of thorough oversight," the GAO cited "previously undetected pipeline, pump station, and storage tank corrosion; a computerized leak detection system that has not been tested to see if it works at approved alarm thresholds; not knowing how effective [the system's] design and Alyeska's surveillance and maintenance program have been in assessing the potential damage from geological hazards; and limited oversight of the Valdez terminal's operations and facilities." One specific example of things not working as planned: A half dozen of the 14 pipeline spills since 1977 exceeded the 750-barrels-per-day threshold (31,500 gallons) that should have set off an alarm, but the alarm didn't work. GAO also found "no long-term monitoring program to assess ... overall impact on the environment despite the fact that the pipeline crosses three mountain ranges, about 800 rivers and streams, and three known seismic-fault zones. And it characterized what environmental research there has been as "ad hoc, opportunistic, and insufficient to adequately judge ... long-term effects." Meanwhile, to put it bluntly, those who should have been watchdogs were acting more like snoozing lap dogs. All parties snapped to attention with the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, and since then the regulating agencies have set up a joint office to keep a closer eye on things. GAO lauds the increased pipeline staffing levels at most agencies (from seven to 18 at the US Bureau of Land Management), but also says that so far "there is no firm commitment from the EPA, no clear leadership, and no secured funding." Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, notes that neither the White House nor Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel has appointed members to a pipeline-audit task force as required under 1990 oil-spill legislation. "This is the same hands-off approach that contributed to the nation's worst oil spill," he says. A pipeline is a fairly simple thing, but the Trans-Alaska Pipeline presented major engineering challenges through an environment that is both harsh and fragile. There are ways to repair the corrosion, and the smart pigs are getting smarter. Until three years ago, they could identify only a 50-percent loss in thickness. Now, they can sniff out as little as 10 percent and thus head off greater problems. But if Alaska is to continue pumping oil south for years to come, pipeline maintenance will need to improve substantially. And the governmental watchdogs will have to sharpen their eyes and teeth.