ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Internal "F" ratings of pipeline sections operated by BP PLC in Alaska's North Slope show the company's corrosion monitoring program is succeeding, not failing, a company spokesman said Thursday.
Spokesman Steve Rinehart was responding to a report by the independent investigative news organization ProPublica that said the rating means the pipeline walls are 80 percent corroded and could rupture.
That's not always the case, Rinehart said. Pipes with less corrosion but in such sensitive areas as high-pressure lines could also get that rating, which doesn't always mean the line is unsafe or facing imminent failure, he said.
"What it does mean is it prompts a higher priority repair plan," Rinehart said. That could mean immediate repairs, taking a line out of service, or reducing pressure in the line pending a longer-term solution.
ProPublica says it obtained an internal BP maintenance report generated in early October that noted at least 148 pipelines received the most critical "F" rating. But Rinehart said as of Wednesday, 151 locations – not entire pipes – had the rating among more than 1,600 miles of pipelines.
"Most of these are small areas that are identified through a big and continuing inspection program," he said.
North Slope pipeline corrosion came under intense public scrutiny with two large oil spills in 2006. Both spills were traced to BP's failure to regularly clean and inspect two of its pipelines over the course of several years. Rinehart said the spills reinforced the need to intensify the company's corrosion efforts, which it began to do earlier in decade.
BP ultimately agreed with federal prosecutors to pay $20 million in fines and restitution for the first spill, the largest ever on Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field. The spills also led BP to replace 16 miles of transit lines.
Critics used the events as examples of the oil industry's failure to properly maintain the North Slope's aging infrastructure. Among problems they list are pipelines dotted with inadequate patches and gas-leak warning systems they call obsolete.
Marc Kovac, a 33-year BP employee who works as a well-pad mechanic on the North Slope, said he is among several staffers who have gone to company managers with safety concerns including pipeline corrosion.
"Management didn't care," he said.
Kovac said BP takes too long to address "F"-rated pipelines. He believes the company should be more concerned about safety and less driven by cutting costs.
"Once a piece of pipe, or an area in a piece of pipe or vessel, has become 'F' ranked, it means that it's in trouble," he said.
BP says it spends millions annually on North Slope maintenance and upgrades. The current capital budget totals $850 million, according to Rinehart, who said he didn't know how much was targeted for repairs and maintenance.
This year, the company conducted more than 150,000 exterior pipeline inspections, Rinehart said. BP also ran 77,000 internal inspections, using a variety of tools, including "smart pigs," tools sent through pipelines to assess their condition, he said.
"We've got a very active and continuing corrosion-mitigation program," Rinehart said. "And it's been successful. By our markers, corrosion-related failures are coming down."