Environment: A Crude Warning

The largest oil spill in Alaska's North Slope raises sticky questions about future drilling in the Arctic

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BP EXPLORATION / AP

MOPPING UP: White-suited cleanup crews had to battle temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero

At 5:45 on a searingly cold March morning, still 2 1/2 hours before sunrise, a BP worker driving along an empty access road at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil field suddenly smelled oil.

On the side of the road, hidden below a field of snow, a massive slick of crude oil had spread over nearly two acres of tundra. An aging pipe, installed during the Ford Administration, had corroded from the inside and oozed oil out of an almond-size hole--a leak that went undetected for at least five days. None of the pipeline's alarms were tripped. In all, 201,000 gal. of crude escaped, making the spill the largest ever to hit Alaska's North Slope.

The accident raises sticky questions about the oil industry in Alaska at an awkward time for the Bush Administration and its supporters in Congress. While the Senate was busy last week passing a largely symbolic budget amendment in support of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to new drilling, Prudhoe Bay was facing the harsh realities of operating the state's existing wells.

The great petroleum reserves of Alaska are slowly but inexorably drying up, along with the profits of the oil companies that operate there. Meanwhile, 30-year-old pipelines that stretch like a giant cobweb over the oil fields of the North Slope, a flat expanse between the majestic Brooks Range mountains and the Arctic shore, need more and costlier maintenance than ever. The new spill puts into sharp relief the same question that has stalemated the ANWR debate since the 1980s: Can oil companies focused on their bottom line be trusted to protect Alaska's fragile environment?

There is no question that Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field, is in decline. Production has slumped from a daily average of 1.6 million bbl. in 1988 to just 425,000 bbl. in 2005. To extract whatever oil remains, BP, which operates the field for a consortium of petroleum companies that includes ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, has been taking measures that may have unintentionally raised the risks. Drilling more wells to further develop Prudhoe just adds to the more than 1,700 miles of pipeline that already crisscross the North Slope, increasing the chance of leaks. And other techniques, such as injecting water into old wells to flush out remaining pockets of oil, can be hard on the pipes. The corrosion behind this month's leak, for example, is thought to have been started by water that got into the pipeline, eating away at the steel.

Even measures taken to protect wildlife can cause problems. The hole that created the new spill was located at one of dozens of caribou-crossing sites, where the pipeline is tucked in a culvert that helped shield the leak from view.

BP says that it increased corrosion-management spending 16% from 2004 to 2005 to meet these challenges. But an alarming Department of Transportation document obtained by the Anchorage Daily News raises questions about BP's diligence in inspecting its pipelines, pointing to no fewer than six other anomalies found on the same 10-mile stretch of pipeline, including a spot where the pipe had corroded so badly it was less than 0.04 in. thick.

Local political leaders are concerned about the oil companies' priorities. "I'd like to see them use the best available technology to prevent major spills like [this one]," says North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta. "That's not happening right now."

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