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UpstreamOnline: High-profile Washington lawyer will help workers complain at BP

8 September 2006
 
BP has hired a prominent Washington attorney as an ombudsman for its employees to vent concern about operating practices in the US, while federal regulators proposed new rules to toughen oversight of low-pressure pipelines such as those that sprang leaks this year at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, writes Dann Rogers.

Before being appointed to the bench by late president Ronald Reagan, Stanley Sporkin, 74, spent 20 years at the US Securities & Exchange Commission, where he helped write legislation that made it illegal for US corporations to bribe foreign officials.
He later served five years as general counsel to the CIA.

BP, which faces at least three congressional hearings over its partial shutdown of Prudhoe Bay, said it was surprised by the condition of the pipelines, but its critics allege the company looked the other way when employees tried to blow the whistle.

BP has several avenues for workers to report concerns outside of direct supervisors, but Sporkin told reporters in Washington they are apparently not working.

Sporkin once presided over a lawsuit filed by well-known BP critic and self-proclaimed whistle-blower Chuck Hamel of Alexandria, Virginia.

The new pipeline rules are designed to force companies to clean more rigorously, inspect and leak-proof their lines that now are largely exempt from federal safety regulations.

The proposed regulations will “help restore public confidence in America’s pipelines”, said Maria Cino, acting secretary of the US Department of Transportation.

However, an Anchorage-based pipeline Watchdog said that the regulations are a disappointment, in large part because they do not seem to require oil companies to use a smart pig to test pipelines for thinning walls that can lead to holes.

BP, which runs Prudhoe, was blamed for failing to run smart pigs through key pipes known as transit lines.

The pipes, which feed oil into the trans-Alaska pipeline, sprang leaks that prompted a partial shutdown of Prudhoe this summer.

These pipes sprang two leaks — one releasing an estimated 201,000 gallons of oil onto the tundra in early March, another releasing 966 gallons on 6 August.

Officials said BP’s maintenance of the pipelines was “below the standard of care” oil companies usually show such lines.

Normally, transit lines are not prone to corrode and leak.

BP workers found extensive corrosion in some segments of the transit lines after running smart pigs through them on federal orders issued in the wake of the March spill, the largest oil spill ever on the North Slope.

Discovery of the corrosion, coupled with the 6 August leak, prompted BP to shut down half the field.

Prudhoe output remains at only about half its normal 400,000 barrels per day, which is close to 8% of total US oil production.

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