Oil prices have been falling for a long while now. Stock markets and energy sectors are volatile. This is good news or bad news depending on whether you are in the business of buying or selling crude oil, heating a home with expensive heating oil, or funding a government from revenue derived from the oil industry.
Our dependence on oil revenues and oil products, along with our vulnerability to oil spills and fossil fuel-related climate changes, place us on an increasingly unpredictable roller coaster. You may have a slightly different ride depending where in the train of cars you sit, but make no mistake, we are all on the same track, and live in the same environment.
This is a tale of perfect timing and imperfect piping, insistent independence and trusted teamwork, hundreds of hurdles and millions in savings, a simple Russian robot and a seismic company culture shift.
This is the story of the Robotic Inline Inspection Tool Team, which received Alyeska’s 2015 Atigun Award for Innovation. The seven team winners, and the dozens of individuals, teams and organizations that supported the effort, were all integral in a game-changing three-year journey that led to the world’s first crawler pig integrity inspection of a liquid pipeline: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, known as TAPS.
In the summer of 2014, a 200-pound Russian-owned robotic crawler pig inspected around 850 feet of 36 inch buried TAPS piping at Pump Station 3, providing a level of clarity on its system integrity that was previously inaccessible. The success of that inspection resulted in reduced risk and significant cost savings for Alyeska and TAPS. It also inspired similar inspections – as well as similar cost savings and risk reduction – in 2015 and the years ahead.
“There were so many people and teams involved; we all did our jobs, and we did our jobs well,” said Bhaskar Neogi, Alyeska Senior Director of Risk and Compliance. “But this was also about luck, perseverance, stubbornness not to give up, and a willingness not to worry about if we failed.”
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s division of Spill Prevention and Response, often referred to by the acronym “SPAR,” has been facing a significant funding shortfall for some time due to declining oil production. The division works to prevent, prepare and respond to spills of oil and hazardous substances as well as oversee the cleanup of contaminated sites. Their work includes facility inspections, contingency plan review and approval, drills and exercises and site monitoring.
In the 1980s, the State legislature instituted a per barrel surcharge on crude oil to provide funding for the division. Unfortunately, when originally enacted, there was no inflation protection in the bill and production has declined.
Running out of money
This year, without inflation protection or another funding source, the crude oil surcharge became inadequate to support SPAR’s work, necessitating staff reductions and other cost savings. Starting in early 2014, department personnel provided projections to both the House and Senate showing the decrease of funds due to lower oil production. SPAR has been relying on large oil spill settlements and penalties to address the shortfall for several years but those are now spent. This year, SPAR reduced expenses by combining the planning and prevention program with the prevention and response program, reducing personnel, and more actively pursued cost reimbursement, however the shortfall was projected to be $7 million annually. Without a fix to funding, essential services would cease and SPAR would have to reduce personnel by approximately 40 percent.