Alaska Oil Leak Estimate Up to 265,000

Alaska officials last week raised their estimate of the oil leaked from a Prudhoe Bay pipeline to at least 265,000 gallons, making it the largest oil spill on record for the North Slope.

The partial shutdown of BP's refining operations in Prudhoe Bay has slowed its normal daily production of 470,000 barrels per day by about 100,000, BP officials said last week.

There is no clear answer for when the refinery will restart full operations after the leak, first discovered March 2, spilled onto two acres of tundra. Prudhoe Bay -- drilled by BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips -- is the nation's largest oil field.

Inspectors detected a second leak last week along the pipeline in the North Slope. While the cause is unknown, the leak is smaller than the Prudhoe Bay leak.

Last week's estimate makes the leak the largest in the North Slope's history and one of the largest in Alaska's history. The largest spill was in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, dumping 11 million gallons. Critics said the spill illuminated the true dangers of opening up more of the Arctic to oil exploration.

"Aging infrastructure, corroded pipes and failed leak-detection systems ensure that more big accidents like this are a matter of time," said Natalie Brandon, policy director for the Alaska Wilderness League, "especially if Congress opens up the refuge" (Sam Howe Verhovek, Los Angeles Times, March 11).

State investigators will scrutinize the pipeline's leak detection system. Under state law, the system must sound an alarm for field workers if the pipeline's oil flow dips by 1 percent or more in a 24-hour period. If the rate of the spill was slow enough, the system would not be blamed for failing to detect the leak (Greenwire, March 8).

"That's part of what we have to determine," said Bill Hutmacher, a state Department of Environmental Conservation official who enforces industry spill-prevention regulations. "Were they in compliance with the regulations? Was the system functioning?"

The state fined BP $300,000 in May 2002 for failing to install a system promptly as required by state law (Wesley Loy, Anchorage Daily News, March 11). -- EB

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