DOT action will let BP run "smart pig" diagnostic equipment through pipeline. (Photo:BP)

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has approved BP Exploration Alaska Inc.'s request to reopen and test a feeder line to the TransAlaska Pipeline System that was closed since August when a leak was discovered. That leak prompted BP to close the eastern part of the Prudhoe Bay field, reducing the flow of oil from a key domestic production area.

The Sept. 22 approval by DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will let BP pump oil into its Eastern, low-pressure line so it can run a cleaning mechanism, called a "pig," to remove solids that have accumulated in the line. Then the company can send a inspection device, called a "smart pig" through the line to analyze its interior.

BP says the test will be done on a five-mile, 34-inch-diameter segment that moves oil from processing facilities on the eastern half of the Prudhoe Bay field. Following the DOT action, BP says three of its four flow stations now on "warm stand-by" can return to full production. The company says that restarting the field will take approximately one week.

Thomas Barrett, head of DOT's pipeline agency, said, "The only way to test these lines to make sure they are safe is to restart them in a controlled, monitored way." The agency will use results from the diagnostic tests to determine whether to allow BP to keep pumping oil through the line.

BP also is working on replacing 16 miles of pipeline in the area. David Peattie, the company's group vice president for existing profit centers, called DOT's action, "an important milestone in returning all of Prudhoe Bay to production many months in advance of our complete replacement of 16 miles of oil transit lines."

If BP is permitted to go back to full operation of the eastern Prudhoe area, that should increase daily North Slope oil production by about 200,000 barrels per day. At present, Prudhoe Bay production is about 250,000 barrels per day.

The leak in the Eastern area pipeline followed a 200,000-gal. spill from another low-pressure BP northern Alaska pipeline, this one in the Prudhoe western area.

The company has come under fire on Capitol Hill for what lawmakers contend was inadequate maintenance and monitoring of Alaska pipelines. DOT has proposed a regulation that would require more rural, low-pressure pipelines like the BP's where the leaks and spill occurred.