Alyeska: Worst Problem is Low Oil Flow

By Dave Donaldson

Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s new President Tom Barrett today told legislators that the biggest problem facing the TransAlaska Pipeline is the low volume of oil being shipped from the North Slope.

Designed to deliver up to two million barrels of oil per day,  it is now carrying a little more than six hundred thousand barrels.

Barrett and members of his staff specifically addressed the most recent oil spill on the line that began January 8th.

Barrett, a former commander of the Coast Guard, says his Coast Guard experience has taught him to throw every tool available into responding to an emergency — and low oil flow is an emergency.

I’m looking at my flow model.  And I’m looking at how long it takes to bring oil online – couple of years, three years, five years, maybe interior fuel ten years if your regulators will let you offshore.  And I’m not liking it.  And I’m not seeing that kind of urgency:  do whatever it takes.   And by the way, if it turns out that oil rigs are getting in each others’ way up there, then back down and say we did too much.   I don’t sense that.

Betsy Haines, the Oil Movements Director for Alyeska,  explained the effects of low volume in the line.  She says TAPS was designed to handle warm oil and to carry that oil for shipment relatively quickly.  But at current low flow rates,  it is taking fifteen days for oil to get from pump station one to the terminal at Valdez.  And that leads to the problem.

It’s very clear, low flow, longer transit time that barrel of oil is in the system for many more days.  And when it starts out at pump station one at a lower temperature, which it has done over the years,  it is going to cool down over the eight hundred miles.   It’s a fact, it’s physics.  You’re not going to change that.  And with the cooling oil, lower turbulence, water can drop out of that line.  Water has become our number one enemy with the lower temperatures we’ve seen in the winter.  And the wax.

Barrett said the pipeline faces many risks in its daily operations – weather, environment, regulatory decisions. He says there are plans underway to prepare for them,  but he refuses to gamble on them.

I don’t like the risk.  And despite our best efforts and despite the temperature, it’s going to walk back to “Don’t have enough oil.”  If I could ask for one thing,  it’s “Figure out a way to get more oil in this pipe.”   That’s the sustainability issue for TAPS.

Barrett had been President of Alyeska one week when the January eighth oil spill occurred.  He says the dedication of the company’s staff – their “grit” he called it – resolved further problems and got the line back in operation much quicker than originally anticipated.


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