Two years ago, a BP pipeline carrying a mix of oil, water and natural gas blew open on the North Slope, spilling what the oil company estimated was 13,500 gallons of crude.
Now that spill is being dissected in federal court to determine whether the circumstances leading up to it amount to criminal behavior by BP.
When the spill was discovered in November 2009, BP was on criminal probation for a misdemeanor conviction from an earlier, much bigger spill and under order not to commit any new environmental crimes. Federal prosecutors say BP violated its probation by failing to act on signs of trouble in a pipeline leading to its Lisburne Production Center, a pipeline that then froze and ruptured.
Prosecutors say BP is a serial environmental offender and want U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to revoke its probation from the 2007 misdemeanor conviction. If he does so, BP could be sentenced anew on the 2007 case and be hit with additional fines and another period of probation.
BP argues that it had no way to foresee the rupture of a pipeline that had performed well for decades and that what happened was unfortunate but not criminal. BP wants its probation, which was extended after the 2009 spill, to end.
A mini-trial before Beistline started Tuesday with a full day of testimony by Matt Goers, the Anchorage-based agent in charge for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's criminal division. A couple of dozen spectators sat in, including state environmental lawyers, BP executives and EPA officials.
COLD TEMPERATURE ALARMS
At its heart, the case concerns whether BP was negligent in its monitoring of the pipeline that moved oil, gas and water from wells to the Lisburne Production Center, where the substances were separated.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward walked Goers through the events.
The troubles began around May 25, 2009, when BP's investigation later determined the flow through the pipeline either slowed or stopped altogether, Goers testified.
Cold temperature alarms that began going off in early June weren't followed up on even though those signals were the only indication that oil may have stopped flowing, he said.
The line at issue was paired with a second, bigger line. Oil, gas and water from nearby wells could travel along either one. For six months, with the expected amount of oil still coming through the bigger, companion pipeline, BP says no one noticed nothing was flowing through the smaller, 18-inch-diameter pipeline.
A similar rupture that occurred in 2001 with a different, frozen pipeline should have led to improvements, but BP didn't enact the lessons learned from 2001 at Lisburne, according to BP's own investigative report on the 2009 spill, Goers testified.
For instance, BP never set up a system to monitor whether oil was flowing through each line separately, he said.
The smaller Lisburne line was fitted with a temperature sensor that would trigger alarms if it got below 70 degrees, but that section of pipe was inside the heated processing center so didn't reflect what was actually going on, Goers testified. The sensor should have been placed outside the heated module, BP's analysis found, he said.
When the Lisburne alarm went off, it was considered informational but should have been given the highest priority, critical, Goers said. Instead, it was ranked second lowest out of BP's four priority levels.
The cold temperature alarm went off repeatedly and for long stretches starting June 5, 2009, Goers said. With the click of a mouse, BP operators could turn off the blinking signal on the monitor but the alarm stayed on in the background until the pipeline got warm enough. While it wasn't unusual for an alarm to go off, it was highly irregular for one to stay on for weeks or months, Goers said.
"An operator read this, clicked the acknowledgement button, and said 'I'm done,'" Goers said.
Was he able to find anyone who took action? Steward asked
No, Goers answered
In fact, BP's investigation found that its failure to recognize and respond to the alarms was a root cause for the eventual rupture, he said.
A THAW PLAN
When BP lawyer Jeff Feldman got his turn to ask the questions, he asked Goers whether he remembered BP employees telling him they would definitely act on a cold temperature alarm.
"And that's what they did," Feldman said.
But Goers said they only clicked on the screen acknowledging the alarm.
Wasn't it true that no one could have known that oil wasn't flowing through the pipeline back in 2009? Feldman asked.
No, Goers said. The temperature alarms indicated a problem.
But weren't there about the same number of cold temperature alarms the year before, in 2008? Feldman asked. The pipe didn't rupture then. And BP considered the Lisburne pipeline at low risk of freezing, because it was only three miles long and the oil was hot going in, he noted.
BP usually heated up the oil before sending it down the pipeline, Goers testified. The heater for the Lisburne line, however, had been sent away for a major overhaul, and BP didn't put in place the recommended temporary heater, Goers said. A BP employee indicated there wasn't enough money for that, he said.
On Nov. 14, 2009, someone checking into another issue at Lisburne happened to test the temperature of the line and found that it was cold, Goers said.
That's the first BP knew the oil wasn't flowing, he said. Operators immediately tested the pressure and determined it was plugged in two spots. The line was frozen, and BP started work on a plan for thawing it. A draft plan wasn't ready until Nov. 22 and wasn't presented to a BP area manager until Nov. 26. The manager said BP needed a risk assessment before moving on the plan.
"Before they could risk assess it, the line ruptured," Goers said.
On Nov. 29, 2009, a BP worker found the spill. Excess pressure from expanding ice had ripped a 2-foot-hole in the pipe. Slushy oil mounded under the pipeline and spewed over the tundra.
The hearing continues today. It is expected to take all week.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.