In the wake of oil spills from BP pipelines in Alaska, members of a House subcommittee strongly criticized company officials for what the lawmakers contended was an inadequate maintenance and corrosion prevention program. Though the legislators' comments at a Sept. 7 Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee hearing were sharp, it was unclear what the legislative upshot would be. Federal officials have proposed a new regulation to cover the types of pipelines wherer the spills occurred.

The company's discovery of leaks in an oil transit line led to its shutdown Aug. 6 of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. That followed a March 2 spill of 200,000 gallons of crude oil from a different BP pipeline in Alaska.

One BP witness at the hearing, Richard C. Woollam, BP Exploration Alaska Inc.'s former manager for its corrosion, inspection and chemicals group, declined to answer the subcommittee's questions, citing Fifth Amendment rights. Woolam is now a corrosion engineer at BP Americas Inc. in Houston.

Senior BP officials who did testify admitted their pipeline programs had fallen short, and said they were increasing spending on pipeline integrity programs and are replacing the pipelines where the spill and leaks occurred. "These spills occurred on my watch...and the buck stops with me," said Steve Marshall, president of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

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  • Legislators repeatedly pressed BP officials at the hearing about why they hadn't done more frequent checks of the pipelines' interiors, using monitoring devices called "smart pigs." Lawmakers said the pipelines where the spills occurred hadn't been "pigged" in several years.

    Citing the company's slogan that BP was moving "Beyond Petroleum," Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said its initials could also stand for "broken pipelines.' Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) chided the company for what he termed "bloated profits."

    Marshall said company officials used ultrasonic testing to check its pipelines and last year had approved a smart pig inspection of its Alaska lines for 2006, but the spills occurred before its scheduled start. He said company officials "believed we had a very comprehensive corrosion management system" before the spills.

    He also said BP is replacing 16 miles of oil tarnsit lines at a cost estimated at more than $150 million and it also will boost Prudhoe Bay major maintenance spending almost fourfold, to $195 million in 2007.

    Full Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) also hammered BP, saying "Years of neglecting to inspect the most vital... oil pipelines in this country is not acceptable." Barton added, " of the world's most successful oil companies can't do simple, basic maintenance needed to keep the Prudhoe Bay field operating safely without interruption, maybe it shouldn't operate the pipeline. Maybe we should find a way to get a different operator through the private-market sale of this pipeline and let somebody else do it."

    Barton also mentioned another incident in what he called BP's "unfortunately notorious track record"--a 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery in which 15 died. Barton said he was "even more concerned about BP's corporate culture of seeming indifference to safety and environmental issues....Shame, shame, shame."

    One result of the pipeline problems has been an Aug. 31 proposed rule from the Dept. of Transportation. Thomas J. Barrett, head of DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the proposal would require low-pressure, rural-area pipelines such as BP's to be covered by federal regulatory authority. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that while DOT had been "reasonably aggressive" in responding to the BP Alaska problems, the new proposed rule didn't go far enough.

    Barrett also said that the Alaska spills "are not a bellwether for the health of the majority of the energy pipeline infrastructure. It is in much better shape."

    Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has slated a hearing Sept. 12 on the BP pipelines. Also pending in Congress is legislation to reauthorize the federal pipeline safety program.