Trans-Alaska Pipeline Study Examines Low-flow Safety Issues

August 2011, Vol. 238 No. 8

A study done for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. concludes that the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS)  can be operated safely down to 350,000 bpd if measures are taken to prevent ice and wax buildup and corrosion, problems that accompany low flow.

Alaska’s U.S. senators said the study is a wake-up call to find more sources of oil for the line before low flow causes operators to close it because it cannot be effectively operated.

“If we don’t act quickly to get more oil in the pipeline, that could go away in just a decade,” said Democrat Mark Begich, calling the pipeline a national asset that delivers about 12% of U.S. oil production. “That’s why I’m aggressively pushing for approval of more oil and gas development on federal lands and in federal waters.”

Republican Lisa Murkowski said the report spells out the importance of finding and producing more oil. “We cannot afford to let the pipeline die from the federal government’s neglect,” she said.

Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said the study has been in the works for two years. Flow rates are at their lowest in the history of the pipeline. The study was aimed at finding out when problems would occur and what could be done to mitigate them. However, the decline has been faster than the company anticipated. The 48-inch has averaged 596,433 bpd this year, less than one-third the capacity.

“Unacceptable pipe displacement limits and possible overstress conditions in the pipe would be reached at a flow volume of 300,000 bpd,” the study noted. The study lists other potential operating problems, including a possible reduction in Alyeska’s efficiency in detecting leaks with sophisticated tools. Another is the threat of a line shutdown in winter, when water could settle in low points, freeze and block flow.

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