Help Wanted: Pigs Please Apply

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Still roasting in the heat wave? Hey! Road trip! Let's visit Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. Pack a sweater, your anti-gunk boots, and some breathing gear. Off we go, laughing and dancing, to a land apparently devoid of sensing technology.

Welcome to Prudhoe Bay
You have arrived at North America's largest oil field, covering 5000 acres of Alaska's North Slope. There are "3898 exploratory wells; 170 drilling pads; 500 miles of road; 1100 miles of pipeline; five docks; and 25 production, processing treatment, and power plants." A town of 5000 oil company employees has sprung up around the operation. The town's name is Deadhorse. Uh-oh!

A Bit of Time Travel
This past March, a BP pipeline ruptured, releasing what was eventually determined to be 267,000 gallons of crude onto the tundra. The oil was hot, so promptly melted through the snow and vanished. The squirt went unobserved by leak detection devices designed to automatically shut down a line in the event of catastrophic failure. According to BP Exploration (Alaska) spokesman Daren Beaudo, "[the sensors] are not necessarily as sensitive to very small leaks at any one time." Well, that was back in March. Maybe leak detection technology was still in its infancy. Air monitors, noting high levels of hydrocarbons, advised against sending repair crews onto the site. A crew flying over with IR equipment didn't collect much usable data because the oil had cooled.

Since 1996, there has been an average of 409 spills per year on the Prudhoe oil fields and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. More than 1.3 million gallons got loose between 1996 and 1999. BP turned $560 billion in profits over the past five years; the company spent $1.5 billion on pipeline maintenance, according to a segment on the August 8 ABC evening news broadcast.

Fast Forward
On or about this past Sunday, someone discovered another significant leak in BP's pipeline. Looks as though leak detection sensors haven't moved very far since March. The story quickly expanded. The company's now saying it's going to shut down some 17 miles of the pipe. Turns out that the thing's been gnawed away from the inside. Wall thickness losses were found to be 70%-81%. Did you just snap to attention? Another snap's coming.

Where Were the Pigs?
If I knew about the Smart Pig family, you can bet that BP did too. These intelligent pseudo-porcine marvels come in various flavors, but they all have the same job assignment: inspect pipes from the inside to verify wall integrity and sound an alert to thinning or breached areas. Some operate on ultrasonics, some on magnetic flux leakage; some are propelled along the line by product flowing through, and some squeeze along on their own.

Couldn't a company that posted a $7.3 billion profit for FQ2 2006 find a way to either employ these clever hogs or fund research into sensor technology that could sniff for a minor, early-warning leaks? We're talking more than five months later here, after the first major event. Heck, a leak between my well and my house with that sort of problem, appropriately scaled down, would catch my attention. Else it would be farewell to my well.

Where It Really Bites
At the gas station for starters. Those who heat with oil will get bit too. The financial news brings the intriguing reasoning that shutting down BP's 2.6% contribution to the U.S. supply will drive the prices of gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum-based products up yet more than their current bloated figures. Market-watchers: Keep a close eye on BP's and the rest of the petroleum industry's FQ3's and 4's postings.

The rest of us can only look at the ruins of Prudhoe Bay, 5000 acres of once-beautiful country now sliding into ooze and stench, and ask, brother BP, can you spare a dime?

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