A congressional committee grilled top executives of BP's US operations yesterday, accusing the company of gross neglect of corrosion problems that came close to shutting down the Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska, and denouncing BP's "notorious track record" of late in the US.
"Years" of neglecting to inspect two of the most vital oil pipelines in the country had been "simply unacceptable", Joe Barton, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the assembled BP high command. His Democratic counterpart, John Dingell, described BP's shortcomings as "staggering". Another committee member described BP's policies as "as rusty as its pipelines".
The hearing came a month after BP shut half of the Alaska field - the largest in the US - after government inspections of pipelines revealed widespread corrosion in a transit pipeline on the eastern side of the field. The closure halved Prudhoe Bay's daily output from the normal 400,000 barrels, some 8 per cent of total US supplies. Robert Malone, BP America's president, replied by saying the company had "stumbled" over the past 12 months, and had failed to meet its environmental and safety goals.
BP plans to set up a board of corrosion experts to recommend better pipeline practices, Mr Malone said in prepared testimony to the committee. "The shine has come off BP," he added. "We have fallen short of the high standards we hold for ourselves and the expectations others have for us."
Though the panel has wide investigative powers, yesterday's hearings were not expected to result in specific action. But they offered the congressmen - all facing re-election in November - a chance to berate the oil industry at a time when sky-high petrol prices have become a hot political issue.
But BP has been a particular focus of complaints, that make a mockery of its environmental claims, not least its slogan "Beyond Petroleum". The logo could also stand for "broken pipelines", joked Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican on the committee.
The Prudhoe shutdown is the latest of a string of controversies to tarnish the company's image. In 2005 a fire at a BP refinery in Texas killed 15 employees, while federal regulators accused BP of trying to manipulate petrol and propane prices in the US. Last March, a separate leak at Prudhoe Bay spilled 200,000 barrels of oil, leading to a criminal inquiry by the federal authorities.
The BP executives told the committee that the company wants to make a partial restart at Prudhoe Bay this month, provided that federal approval is secured and that no further corrosion problems arise.
BP also hopes to use existing infrastructure around Prudhoe Bay to reroute all production from the eastern side of the field by the end of October. It operates Prudhoe Bay on behalf of a consortium including Conoco Phillips and ExxonMobil.Reuse content