By: Senate Cathy Giessel
“Today’s Wall Street Journal contains an article entitled “Shrinking Oil Supplies Put Alaskan Pipeline at Risk“. The article overviews the significant challenges presented by the reduced volume of oil in the TransAlaska Pipeline System, fondly known to us as TAPS. Because of the fact that nearly all the state’s revenue comes through TAPS, I think of it as the State’s aorta, that blood vessel that carries life sustaining blood to the body of our state.
The operation of TAPS is becoming more complex and will continue to do so. This was highlighted in January of this year, when a confined leak was detected and required repair.
Repair necessitated a 148 hour shutdown of the line during the coldest time of the year. A large, skilled workforce was deployed from FAI and ANC to respond. Repair timing was complex, because prolonged shutdown could have resulted in complete inability to restart the pipeline flow.
Understanding the need for educated contingency planning, Alyeska Pipeline Company and TAPS owners have conducted a $10 million Low Flow Impact Study.
The study took theoretical flows down to 300,000 barrels per day. For reference, Mr. President, present TAPS throughput is 635,000 BPD.
Risks identified by the engineering specialists were: water dropout, corrosion, ice formation, wax deposition, the need for increasing numbers of scraper pigs and geotechnical issues.
As an aside, Mr. President, I have to emphasize that the folks conducting this Low Flow research are professionally prepared with appropriate knowledge to critically evaluate the data and scenarios. This contrasts with opinions about TAPS lifespan from folks with expertise in literature or some other field, whose expertise is not in engineering, flow dynamics of liquids or metallurgy. If you had a health problem, Mr. President, I am certain that your wife would insist that you seek the wisdom of a skilled healthcare professional rather than, say an attorney or English teacher. She would want you to see a highly skilled cardiologist, with specialized knowledge.
The same principle applies here – engineering and technical specialists are the people with the credible expertise regarding maintaining TAPS.
Back to the Study – The Low Flow Study showed that at 550,000 BPD temperatures of the oil would likely drop below freezing. (For reference, current oil temperature drops to about 40 degrees now.)
Ice formation in the line would interfere with check value and other equipment function. Yes, pigs can sweep this ice out but in doing so, there is risk of damage to the pumps and other equipment in the line. This was a concern during the January shutdown this year.
At 350,000 BPD, the colder oil in sections of buried pipeline would allow ice lenses to form in the surrounding soil. Folks in the interior know the damage that ice lenses cause to roads and structures. Frost heaves under TAPS will challenge its integrity.
We have heard about wax precipitation out of the oil at low temperatures. The Study finds this to be a significant issue at flow rates of 300,000 BPD. Wax, as you can envision, clogs the pipe and the pumps, in just the same way that cholesterol clogs human blood vessels, like an aorta … leading ultimately to death …
Wax buildup was an issue during this last January shut-down and required aggressive action to keep 2 of the 3 pumps at Pump Station 9 operational.
Alyeska has testified before the other body a couple months ago that they are prepared to aggressively address these issues through heaters, insulation, corrosion inhibitors, frequent pigging. I understand some of these actions will begin to be implemented as soon as this year.
Innovation and increased investment will no doubt remediate some of these issues. The costs will be hundreds of millions of dollars.
Regardless of mighty human efforts, no one can guarantee TAPS will continue to provide a steady, predictable stream of revenue to the State. No one can predict the lifespan of TAPS, any more than they could predict lifespan of any of us, Mr. President.
The fact is, this Legislature has a Math problem to solve: that is how to increase the amount of oil being extracted from the remaining abundant resources on the North Slope. The Legislature must solve the real Math Problem that will bring back oil production.
We in the Legislature have four possible prescriptions to help our patient: investment incentives, permitting, regulations and taxes.
Alaskans and Americans, who are reading this Wall Street Journal article today, are watching and waiting for us to act. Our patient’s health is in jeopardy …”