I am back from holiday, so lets go straight back to BP. The news that BP had to shut over half of its vast Prudhoe Bay operations because of pipeline corrosion has made headlines across the globe. It has also sent the price of oil nearly $2 dollars a barrel upwards.
As BP apologized for the shut-down which could take months to fix, there is one thing that is certain. The company could have prevented the latest disaster from happening. BP only has itself to blame. Corrosion is a huge hidden problem that BP, the oil industry and regulators have all known about for decades.
Fourteen years ago, in 1992, Congress urged the Transportation Department to start regulating low-pressure pipelines such as those blamed for shutting down Alaska’s North Slope oil production.
However, the section of BP’s Alaskan pipeline that suffered the recent corrosion and leak was exempt from oversight. That meant BP was allowed to inspect its own pipelines. Its monitoring was seriously inadequate.
So much so, that whistleblowers from within the company have been complaining for years that BP’s operations were a disaster waiting to happen. Workers who blew the whistle were intimidated and threatened. Some were sacked. Working with the Guardian newspaper in London, I was part of a team of journalists who broke a major story about the whistleblowers and their concerns 1999. The headline in the paper said “Oil pipeline disaster ‘imminent’”
The paper said: “An ecological disaster far worse than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe in Alaska 10 years ago could happen at any moment, according to six senior employees of the company that runs the 800-mile Alaskan oil pipeline. The six whistleblowers have written to BP Amoco’s chief executive, Sir John Browne, and three US congressmen warning of an imminent threat to human life and the Alaskan environment from irresponsible oil operations there. The letter contains evidence of compliance failures, falsified safety and inspection records, intimidation of workers and persistent violations of procedures and government regulations”.
The overriding impression I had talking to the whistleblowers was here were men who loved their job, and even their company, but that the comapny refused to listen to their concerns or t otake them seriously. They had repeatedly warned of the growing problems on the North Slope, its pipelines and TAPs. But to no avail.
With all roads closed they approached Chuck Hamel, an oil trader turned industry gadfly. But still BP dismissed the concerns but did nothing. Hamel has stayed on BP’s case, reporting the concerns of the workers to Congress and the company. According to the Wall Street Journal, even before last week’s shut-downs, investigations prompted by Hamel have forced BP and the other oil companies to undergo make $1 billion worth of safety improvements.
Last year Hamel provided information on Prudhoe Bay’s corrosion problems to the US Environmental Protection Agency, that prompted a criminal investigation. Two months before the shut-down Hamel wrote directly to Walter E. Massey, chairman of the environment committee of BP’s non-executive board, and asking him to investigate the concerns. Workers “seek to see the corrosion problem addressed and corrective action undertaken without further delay and before any of their colleagues at Prudhoe are harmed,” he wrote.
It is hardly surprising that last week’s shut-down came as no surprise to Hamel, who said that BP had been “playing Russian roulette with the facility and the flow lines, jeopardising the safety of the workers and threatening the environment.”
To show just how much a farce BP’s operations have become, just days the unprecedented Prudhoe Bay shut-down, BP topped a survey showing which oil company is seen as the most sustainable. That not only shows just how persuasive BP’s greenwashing has been, but also how far the company has managed to massage the truth from reality. But BP has finally been forced to face the truth.