Sunday’s local newspaper reported that gasoline sales in Vermont were 13 percent below prediction in February of this year and almost 15 percent low for May.  I have no theories on the May swoon, aside from the toll continued high prices are having on us all, but I’m reasonably sure the February dip was due to our mild winter.  Less snow, fewer skiers coming to Vermont and, more significantly from a gas vendor’s view, fewer people riding snow machines through the woods.  Burn enough gas, change the climate and soon you can’t burn gas riding through snowy forests.  I don’t know if that’s poetic justice, but there is a certain symmetry.

As I digested that news along with my eggs, crude oil was seeping into the North Slope of Alaska from a corroded transit pipe owned – and neglected – by British Petroleum (BP).

Perhaps you’ve seen BP’s rebranded logo and “Beyond Petroleum” catchphrase.  They spent $100 million on the rebranding in 2000, (which is $17 million more than they spent on renewable energy the year before).

The ads are all yellow and green and friendly.  The truth is different; people familiar with BP’s record refer to the corporation as “Biggest Polluter.”  The most polluting industrial facility in the United States?  The BP refinery in Texas City, TX.  Foul emissions from the plant rose by 300 percent between 2003 and 2004 (well after BP started its “eco-friendly” charade).  Things didn’t get any better in 2005, when 15 workers died in an explosion.  Three hundred health and safety violations were found after that incident.  In 2006, the EPA found BP Texas City was fudging its reporting on pollutants.  Nice company, huh?

On March 2, a BP employee noticed an overpowering odor of crude oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  The source was oil spilling from a BP transit pipeline.  Leak sensors are supposed to detect leaks long before the human nose gets involved, but they didn’t work.  By the time the spill was contained, 270,000 gallons of crude oil was on the tundra, the biggest spill in North Slope history.

After that spill, the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), the woefully underfunded federal agency charged with overseeing America’s 2.3 million miles of pipeline, sent a “corrective order” to BP.  The order found that the March spill was caused by bacterial corrosion that BP had failed to detect.  The order noted that BP’s pipeline had been installed between 1975 and 1977.  Should we be surprised that the pipeline leaked after 30 years in one of the harshest environments on the planet?  British Petroleum is raking in record profits, but invests in neither replacement pipelines nor leak detection systems that work.

The OPS ordered BP to undertake extensive inspections of all its North Slope pipelines (including the one that leaked Sunday – due to bacterial corrosion) and perform whatever maintenance was needed.  All this was to have been accomplished by the end of June.  Obviously, it didn’t happen.

Why not?  Because BP would rather spend the money on executive bonuses than environmental protection or worker safety.  The OPS can write all the “corrective orders” it wants, but no one in the Bush administration will hold BP accountable.  The state of Alaska is even more accommodating to oil companies.  Oil revenues paid to the state account for 89 percent of Alaska’s budget.  The chance that oil pumping may be substantially reduced has thrown the state into a panic.  If the oil stops flowing, Alaska’s state government will shut down in 60 days, for lack of funds.  Alaska is clearly hostage to the oil companies and does their bidding, so don’t expect oversight from that quarter.

Five barrels of oil spilled Sunday, about 200 gallons.  The pipeline will either be shut down or the flow of oil will be severely reduced.  In March 270,000 gallons (6,750 barrels) spilled, but there was no interruption in the flow.  Why is that?  Certainly no one wants to risk more spills, but has no engineer ever considered having backup systems in place?  Or is it just more convenient to squeeze the oil supply during the weeks of greatest demand?  The North Slope of Alaska provides just two percent of America’s daily oil habit.  Will the three-dollar-per-gallon price of gas go up six cents?  Or will the oil companies use this as an excuse to jack up the price 50 cents?

It’s ever more clear that unethical, unaccountable oil companies like BP can only be trusted to lie.  This is why we should not expand drilling in Alaska and it is why we should turn to energy sources that don’t kill their workers, don’t foul land, air and water and won’t bring about the heat death of the human race.

© Mark Floegel, 2006