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Financial Times: BP faces claims of tampering with data on Alaskan pipeline

By Sheila McNulty in Houston

US environmental investigators are examining allegations by employees that BP manipulated inspection data to avoid replacing pipelines at Prudhoe Bay, its 30-year-old Alaskan field, the Financial Times has learned. BP denies the allegations.

At the same time, in a separate move, Alaska’s attorney-general, David Marquez, has issued subpoenas to BP, as operator and an owner of the field, and its co-owners, “to preserve all documents that may be relevant to corrosion at Prudhoe Bay”, to conduct an investigation.

The parallel investigations into BP’s credibility as operator of North America’s largest oil field are yet another blow to the company, which already is under heightened regulatory scrutiny in the US after major lapses at its Alaskan and Texas operations within the past two years.

Lord Browne, BP’s chief executive, might yet be drawn into the growing controversy over whether BP mismanaged parts of its US operations.

A Texas court is to decide next week whether to require Lord Browne to give sworn testimony about how much he knew of the dilapidated state of the Texas City refinery, where there was an explosion last year which killed 15 people and injured an estimated 500.

The spill in Alaska in March raised questions about whether BP’s problems were symptomatic of a broader deficiency in its safety culture in the US.

In Alaska, BP workers told the FT they have reported to criminal investigators at the US Environmental Protection Agency that the company was negligent in maintaining its pipelines, ultimately leading to spills along the Prudhoe Bay oil transit lines.

The investigation of those charges is tied to a grand jury probe into whether to bring criminal charges against BP and/or its executives. BP also is being investigated by a grand jury in Texas.

BP denies any wrongdoing, insisting the explosion in Texas was a one-off and that it only discovered “unexpectedly severe corrosion” in Alaska after regulators forced it to do high-tech monitoring tests after the spill of more than 200,000 gallons of oil at the field in March.

Ronnie Chappell, BP spokesman, said the company was co-operating with the grand jury investigation. “We believed our previous programme of ultrasonic inspections, corrosion coupon monitoring and the use of corrosion inhibitors in these transit lines was adequate,” he said, adding, “We now know that was not the case.”

The separate, civil court proceedings in Texas have been instigated by Brent Coon, the lead plaintiff’s attorney in the civil case against BP, after the company refused to permit Lord Browne to give a sworn deposition.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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