The BP lead operator who found signs of a frozen pipeline on Alaska's North Slope back in November 2009 testified in federal court Monday that he stumbled on the problem accidentally when he was checking other equipment with a hand-held laser device no bigger than a calculator.
As a lead operator, Tony Jackson oversees daily operations at the Lisburne Production Center, where oil is separated from the water and natural gas produced from wells. He now also is a witness for BP as the oil company defends itself in Anchorage against government accusations that the circumstances surrounding a 2009 spill from that frozen pipeline amount to criminal behavior.
On the stand Monday in U.S. District Court, Jackson said he was working the night shift on Nov. 14, 2009, when he discovered that the pipe inside the heated facility was just 55 degrees, much colder than it should have been.
He and others began to troubleshoot. A crude oil heater for that pipeline was being repaired. BP soon determined that oil had stopped flowing and that the pipeline was frozen. Operators and managers took the issue seriously, Jackson testified. The plan was to try to thaw the pipeline.
No one realized just how big the problem was, according to his testimony.
"Rupturing was not on our radar at the time," Jackson said. Another BP pipeline that froze thawed on its own without rupturing, he said.
Two weeks after Jackson found the cold pipe at Lisburne, before BP could execute its thaw plan, the pipeline did rupture, spilling an estimated 13,500 gallons of crude on the snow and tundra. Excess pressure from expanding ice blew a 2-foot-hole in the metal wall of the pipe.
SLUGGING OF GAS
BP has been on criminal probation since 2007 for an earlier, much bigger spill. Federal prosecutors say that BP was negligent and failed to properly respond to signs of trouble with the Lisburne pipeline. They want U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to revoke BP's probation and resentence the company with an additional period of probation and new fines. BP argues that the line had worked properly for almost 25 years and that it couldn't have foreseen pressure building to the point of blowing it open. The spill was thoroughly cleaned up, BP says.
For months before the spill, sensors on the pipeline had been triggering cold temperature alarms, which BP's own investigation says was an indirect sign that the flow of oil may have stopped due to freezing.
But Jackson testified that operators didn't use the cold alarms as a measure of flow. Rather those alarms may signal "slugging" of natural gas, he said. Normally, oil, water and gas move through the pipeline as a blend to be separated at the plant. But sometimes a big slug of one comes through, and if it's gas, plant operators need to let production operators know so they can make adjustments, Jackson said. Natural gas is colder than oil or water.
Operators didn't realize oil had stopped flowing because the 18-inch line that ruptured was paired with a second, bigger line, and oil from a number of wells could travel down either one, other witnesses have said.
'CHASING OUR TAILS'
A couple of months after the spill, Jackson emailed his boss and two other higher-ups a list of serious concerns about staffing, management and equipment issues at the Lisburne Production Center, including 14 specific equipment problems.
One of the most pressing problems was a need for a new air compressor, necessary for running some of the controls. If a backup compressor failed, the entire plant would be shut down and BP would be producing less oil.
"It's a constant battle," Jackson said. "I kind of want stuff yesterday."
Managers told him he did the right thing by bringing his concerns forward, he said. He suffered no negative consequences, and remains a lead operator for BP. He didn't go through BP's formal "employee concerns" program but got fast results, including a new air compressor out of Deadhorse, he testified.
BP lawyer Jeff Feldman asked him whether any of the concerns he brought up in early 2010 related to the pipeline rupture in 2009.
No, he said.
But during cross examination, assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward asked whether some of the equipment issues had been going on for more than a month.
They had, he said.
"We were chasing our tails at that time, yes," Jackson said.
Prosecutors have framed part of their case around Jackson's list of concerns, pointing to it as evidence of an atmosphere of neglect.
Also on Monday, Feldman called BP's director of pipeline assurance, Glen Pomeroy, to the stand. Pomeroy said that BP operates 5,000 different pipelines spanning 1,600 miles on the North Slope.
One issue is that BP didn't directly monitor the Lisburne line for whether oil was flowing through it.
That's a technological challenge for pipelines carrying a mix of oil, gas and water, Pomeroy testified.
How many BP lines like that are fitted with flow meters? Feldman asked.
None, Pomeroy answered.
He will continue on the stand today. The probation hearing began Nov. 29 and is moving slower than expected. If both sides can't wrap up by Wednesday, the proceeding may be put on hold for several weeks or into next year due to other commitments by the judge and the attorneys.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.