No more spills? BP teams up with University of Manchester

by Adam Farnell, News Editor

oil sands1 smallIn August 2006 a pipeline running through Prudhoe Bay North Slope in Alaska bursts. Thousands of gallons of oil spill into an area of natural beauty. The cause of the spill is a lack of basic maintenance and cost cutting.

The company responsible for the pipeline are British Petroleum (BP).

The University of Manchester, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will be working in corrosion research and safety. BP has initially invested two million dollars, roughly £1.2m, into this field of research, and intends to match this figure for four more years.

“Corrosion control, mitigation, and monitoring are significant concerns in our industry,” said Simon Webster, BP’s Vice-President for the IRF flagship. “We recognised that the future success of the IRF programme depends on having reliable long-term access to highly specialised materials and corrosion expertise and laboratory facilities. Our collaboration with MIT and Manchester will provide us with the world-class research access we need.”

But the history of corrosion technology and BP is filled with neglect, environment damage and cover-ups.

Greater technological advances are required in corrosion and environmental cracking in pipelines is required as BP moves into more extreme environments with higher temperatures, deeper reservoirs and greater pressures. The two universities will be at the forefront of this research, ensuring events in such as the Alaska spill are prevented. According to National Geographic News, over 267,000 gallons (1 million litres) of oil was spilled in Alaska’s North Slope due to corrosion in a BP pipeline. The spill occurred in winter, avoiding harm to thousands of migratory birds, caribou, and other animals that inhabit North Slope in the spring and summer.

BP was chastised for the neglect that had led to the spill. Senator Ted Stevens, Republican senator from Alaska, said that BP had misled him for years over safety issues on the Alaskan pipeline. Senator Stevens added that he was “shocked” to discover that, in some portions of the pipeline, 81 per cent of the steel had been eaten away by corrosion. A 2007 US Congressional hearing said that there was a “mountain of evidence” that cost cutting on maintenance had led to the oil spill in Alaska.

A chairman of BP America admitted that “there was a concerted effort to manage costs” in the Alaskan pipeline. However, he maintained, “budget increases alone would not have prevented the leaks.”

However, the Congressional hearing did not agree. Member of the House of Representatives and Democrat John Dingell read from an internal e-mail that said budget cuts would force BP to end a programme of adding corrosion inhibitors to the pipeline. “BP staff were worried this would increase corrosion,” said Dingell.

A criminal enquiry into the spills led US Federal Investigators to a document for an engineering firm, Coffman Engineers, warning that there was evidence of “accelerated” corrosion in the BP pipeline network. The report dates back to 2004, before the eventual oil spills in Alaska, two years later. Coffman Engineers warned that the pipeline system was venerable to corrosion.

Don Stears, manager of Coffman Engineers, told The Times in 2006 that, “our reports were quite accurate as far as corrosion mechanism that BP needed to address.” Mr Stears also said, after assessing the Alaskan pipeline, BP needed to take preventative measures in corrosion over its entire network.

The report did not entirely criticise BP, but it did warn of the “accelerated” corrosion in 2004 and that BP had not run industry standard tests, such as the “smart pig” robot or “coupons,” which are flat sheets of metal inserted into the pipeline to determine corrosion.

Darren Beaudo, a spokesman for BP in 2006 told The Independent, “There is a corrosion mechanism at work here that we don’t understand. The [Coffman] reports recognise that corrosion was increasing but we have never denied that… [But] nothing I’ve seen in Coffman indicated that they pointed at specific problems in the transit lines,” Mr Beaudo said. “Coffman was generally very complimentary about our maintenance programme.”

The US federal government and the State of Alaska both filed civil case against BP after the Prudhoe Bay oil spill, maintaining that failed to adequately prepare for the spill under the Clean Water Act.

BP issued a press release on October 24, 2007, which admitted that the company “failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law.” The statement included an apology by BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone.

BP pleaded guilty to charges related to the Texas City refinery blast, pipeline leaks in Alaska and price fixing. They paid a record $373 million (£187 million) in fines and penalties after agreeing a peace deal with the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

In October 2009, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) gave BP a further $87.4m fine, following a failure to resolve the environment and safety issues highlighted in 2007 at the Texas Oil Refinery.

When asked if the academic partnership with MIT and the University of Manchester was a result of the fines and court cases against them, a spokesperson from BP told Student Direct: Mancunion: “The operation has been in place for a long time and working out what is needed. Alaska is only part of the reason for the research, but it’s not the trigger. It is simply an example of why this sort of wider knowledge is going to be more and more important.”

“Alaska is just one of our dozens and dozens of our operations around the world. Some are even older, most are newer.

“We’ve replaced dozens and dozens of miles of pipelines, in Alaska and elsewhere, as an effort in ongoing maintenance.”

oil sands 2 smallBut problems with the oil giant’s pipelines will not go away. Engineers had warned BP that the already controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Cayhan, a pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia, did not have a sufficient quality of protective corrosive coating applied to the pipeline. An enquiry into the pipelines shows that BP ignored evidence and expert advice on the coating system. Ignoring these warnings lead to oil leakage and corrosion, according to the enquiry.

Furthermore, BP has been criticised for its actions in Turkey. According to a report by published by Kurdish Human Rights Project, The Corner House, Friends of the Earth and Environmental Defence, there has been evidence of human rights abuses, including violations of international fair trial standards in Turkey. Ferhat Kaya, a human rights activist who worked with villagers affected by the Baku-Tbilisi-Cayhan pipeline, was arrested and allegedly tortured in 2004.

Friends of the Earth International Finance Campaigner Hannah Ellis said: “BP’s project is resulting in human rights abuses on the back of development bank finance. Ferhat Kaya’s trial highlights the failure of the project’s attempts at consultation with those affected. BP and the banks involved must do more to ensure that the work they fund is not breaching fundamental environmental and social standards.”
There are further concerns over BP’s poor human rights record. In 2006, BP had a multi-million dollar settlement with a group of Colombian farmers after accusations that BP benefited from a campaign of harassment and intimidation carried about by the Colombian paramilitaries who were employed to guard a BP pipeline. It was never alleged that BP had any involvement in any of the paramilitaries’ activities.

BP’s environmental record is no cleaner. According to Greenpeace UK, in 2007 alone BP released over 63 million tonnes of CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere, roughly equivalent to the emissions of Portugal. In 2008, Greenpeace UK awarded BP the ironic “Emerald Paintbrush” award, which was given for BP spending 93 per cent ($20bn) of its investment in petroleum, despite multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns committing to alternative energy sources. The remaining seven per cent was shared between bio fuels, solar energy and wind energy, despite BP claiming to be ‘Beyond Petroleum’.

More recently, BP has been one of the many oil companies digging in the tar sands of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. In August last year, protesters and members of the Cree aboriginal people campaigned against British companies involvement in the digging. BP were named as one of the major players in the scheme under chief executive Tony Hayward.

The oil companies in question dispute claims that extracting oil from the tar sands causes more pollution. Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, from Fort Chipewyan, a centre of Alberta’s tar sands schemes, disputes this, saying: “It is destroying the ancient boreal forest, spreading open-pit mining across our territories, contaminating our food and water with toxins, disrupting local wildlife and threatening our way of life.

George Poitras, a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, had further, more damaging criticisms of the work. Poitras became concerned about the unusually high rate of cancer in the locals: a largely aboriginal community 600 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. A high number of cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare bile duct cancer, were reported by the locals. He said: “We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan, where I live. We are convinced these cancers are linked to the tar sands development on our doorstep.”

It showed British companies were complicit in “the biggest environmental crime on the planet,” said Deranger.

A recent report by the Alberta Health Services confirmed some of the worst fears of the Mikisew Cree First Nationers. The report stated: that increases in numbers of three particular cancers “warrant closer monitoring of cancer occurrence in upcoming years. Whether people living in Fort Chipewyan have an increased risk of developing cancer is still not clear.”

The University of Manchester is no stranger to controversial business partners. The University worked with Shell to develop bio fuels, which could arguably compete with food production, with farmers switching from food to fuel crops. Potentially, this could drive up food prices in areas where people are already starving.

A University of Manchester spokesman said: “BP has selected the University of Manchester and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as its academic research partners to further investigate materials and corrosion science and technology. The Corrosion and Protection Centre at the University of Manchester is home to more than 70 students and research workers and 11 academic staff, making it the largest academic-based institute of its kind.

“The University of Manchester has a long history of constructive engagement with industry. Leading research-intensive universities such as Manchester have a responsibility to engage with leading commercial organisations to address together the most pressing societal issues.”

Laura Willaims, Campaigns Officer for the University of Manchester Students’ Union said, “Considering that the University stresses the importance of social responsibility and sustainability as part of its 2015 strategy document, it concerns me that it the University maintains a strategic alliance with BP. In light of the issues surrounding BP’s environmental and ethical practices the University should seriously reconsider this alliance if it sincerely wishes to meet its objectives.”

~ by fredfelleman on March 1, 2010.

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