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But I thought oil prevented rust

Daniel Engber, Slate
Severely corroded pipelines will force BP to shut down its oil field at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, company officials said on Sunday. After a major spill in March, the company discovered stretches where the pipe had lost more than 70 percent of its mass to corrosion. Why does oil corrode a pipeline?

It has water in it. The crude oil that flows from Prudhoe Bay isn’t the pure stuff we might use to stave off rust in our cars. When an oil company pumps crude out of the ground, it can also pump out a hot mixture of water, carbon dioxide, sulfur, and microorganisms. (Crude oil with lots of sulfur in it is called “sour,” as opposed to “sweet.”) If enough of these contaminants collect in a steel pipe, they’ll work together to eat away at its inner surface.
(8 Aug 2006)
Related from The New Scientist: Bacteria may have eaten through Alaskan oil pipe .

The Brilliantly Profitable Timing of the Alaska Oil Pipeline Shutdown
Greg Palast, Guardian via Common Dreams
Is the Alaska Pipeline corroded? You bet it is. Has been for more than a decade. Did British Petroleum shut the pipe yesterday to turn a quick buck on its negligence, to profit off the disaster it created? Just ask the “smart pig.”

Years ago, I had the unhappy job of leading an investigation of British Petroleum’s management of the Alaska pipeline system. I was working for the Chugach villages, the Alaskan Natives who own the shoreline slimed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker grounding.

Even then, courageous government inspectors and pipeline workers were screaming about corrosion all through the pipeline. I say “courageous” because BP, which owns 46% of the pipe and is supposed to manage the system, had a habit of hunting down and destroying the careers of those who warn of pipeline problems.

In one case, BP’s CEO of Alaskan operations hired a former CIA expert to break into the home of a whistleblower, Chuck Hamel, who had complained of conditions at the pipe’s tanker facility. BP tapped his phone calls with a US congressman and ran a surveillance and smear campaign against him. When caught, a US federal judge said BP’s acts were “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.”

This was not an isolated case. Captain James Woodle, once in charge of the pipe’s Valdez terminus, was blackmailed into resigning the post when he complained of disastrous conditions there. The weapon used on Woodle was a file of faked evidence of marital infidelity. Nice guys, eh?

Now let’s talk timing. BP’s suddenly discovered corrosion necessitating an emergency shut-down of the line is the same corrosion Dan Lawn has been screaming about for 15 years. Lawn is a steel-eyed government inspector who has kept his job only because his union’s lawyers have kept BP from having his head…

Enron Corporation was infamous for deliberately timing repairs to maximize profit. Would BP also manipulate the market in such a crude manner? Some US prosecutors think they did so in the US propane market. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) just six weeks ago charged the company with approving an Enron-style scheme to crank up the price of propane sold in poor rural communities in the US. One former BP exec has pleaded guilty.
(8 Aug 2006)
Palast doesn’t get beyond speculation, or explain how the shutdown would benefit BP in particular, however it’s interesting background on the issue. Palast may have got things wrong on peak oil recently, but he is still digs up the dirt like an actual investigative journalist of the old tradition.

UPDATE: Have added the related item below.

Did BP Purposefully Allow its Alaska Pipeline to Corrode in Order to Shut it Down and Boost Oil Prices?
Amy Goodman with Chuck Hamel, Democracy Now
North America’s largest oilfield remains shut down for a fourth day and it could remain shut down for several months. The oil company BP closed the oilfield on Sunday after discovering what it described as “unexpectedly severe corrosion” of the oil pipeline. Questions are now being raised about whether BP purposely allowed the pipeline to become corroded. We speak with longtime oil industry watchdog, Chuck Hamel.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, BP has had a long-running series of problems, had been fined — on several occasions, some very large fines — for failing to properly keep up its lines there. Could you talk about that?

CHUCK HAMEL: Correct. But in this instance, it wasn’t just — when you consider oilfield workers, I’m talking about engineers, BP engineers, BP corrosion experts, who have left the company because they wouldn’t participate in their corrupt corrosion program. Everyone who didn’t want to be part of it, those that didn’t, were independently coming to me — I’m sort of their outlet — anonymous complaints through me, to back to the company, and when the company doesn’t do the right thing, then I have to go public. I’m not getting paid for this. I can’t get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. But I’m a prisoner of these concerned individuals, and they’re not just — they’re engineers, they’re corrosion experts, who fear for the lives of their former colleagues and who work in the process centers, which are very volatile. And that’s what I’ve been involved with. Whether I like it or not, I have to help them, for fear that they’re going to roll themselves up.
(10 Aug 2006)
More credible talk of dubious dealings by BP around the pipeline. However, I’m still not understanding how BP directly benefits from shutting the pipeline. -AF

An Oil Leak Rattles a State and Its Workers

William Yardley, NY Times
DEADHORSE, Alaska — There was a newspaper here once. It was back in the boom years of the 1980’s, when the crude oil surging up from 9,000 feet beneath the earth and ice was still transforming Alaska’s North Slope from Arctic wilderness to flush frontier.

Now this frontier town has no newspaper. Nor a resident mayor or town council or even any real residents. It is just a drill site with as many as 5,000 people — no one seems to have a firm count — who cycle in and out, year round, often on two-week hitches.

They are mostly men, and they work on wells controlled by BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and other companies. Or they repair trucks and pumps. Or they run the desk or the kitchen at the camps that house and feed the work force. And this week, some of them worry more than they ever have.
(9 Aug 2006)

BP Was Told of Pipeline Worries in ’04

Mathew Carr, Bloomberg News
Workers Said Insufficient Attention Was Paid to Corrosion
BP PLC was told by employees and contractors in a February 2004 survey that its Prudhoe Bay pipeline network probably was not being adequately monitored for corrosion, according to a company report.

“If we find pipe that we know is rotten, they have to replace it,” an unidentified employee was quoted as saying in the report, posted on BP’s Web site. “My concern, however, is that they are not taking a look at every piece of pipe that they need to be.”
(10 Aug 2006)