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The Oil Patch

Reports and Research Memoranda


Richard A. Fineberg

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NEW!! The Reduced
Oil Imports Report:

Conservation Gains
(2012 - 2030): 46.9
billion barrels.
Arctic Refuge
(2012 - 2030): 1.8
billion barrels

New Report on EIA Data (Nov. 26, 2011)

TAPS Internal Investigation Report: Read It Here!

Alyeska Failed to Heed Warnings
Prior to May Spill, Restarted TAPS Without Knowing Why Emergency Power Failed; Promises to Reform Management System on TAPS Echo Past Calls for Improvement

Background: The Story of a Troubled Tank

By Richard A. Fineberg
August 24, 2010
(Posted August 25, 2010)

Review of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company's closely held internal investigation report on the May 25 oil spill at Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) Pump Station #9 (PS9) reveals a disturbing picture of chronic problems on the aging, partially revamped pipeline that carries upwards of 550,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) from the northern edge of the continent on an 800 mile journey across Alaska to reach tankers headed to the West Coast.

About 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of crude oil overflowed the pressure relief tank (TK-190) at PS9 when the automated TAPS control system released an estimated 33,000 barrels from the pipeline during an emergency shutdown. The spill was set in motion by cascading events that began when the pipeline's critical control systems crashed at PS9 due to the failure of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery system that was supposed to be rock-steady. The spilled oil remained within the lined retaining walls of the station's tank farm compound, but the significance of the event transcends the limited environmental consequences of the spill itself and revolves around this question: Was this spill an anomaly, or was it a harbinger of future mishaps on the line?

TAPS resumed shipping three days after the spill and presently carries an average of 550,000 barrels per day (bpd) with a gross market of more than $40 million for roughly 3% of the nation's daily liquid petroleum consumption. (1) Meanwhile, this writer's review of the background to the May 25 spill reveals new facts and troubling questions:

  • When pipeline was restarted May 28, the pipeline operators did not know what caused the UPS system to fail, leading to the spill and shutdown. As a condition of restart, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) required Alyeska to send a special oversight group to PS9, a normally automated facility, to watch the pipeline 24 hours a day.

  • Nearly three months later, TAPS is still operating with the cause of failure unresolved (insofar as is publicly known), and with the same special watch team in place. The prolonged, temporary staffing of the normally unmanned pump station is an indication of the unease that hangs over the aging, reconfigured pipeline as information on the spill slowly comes to light.

  • According to Alyeska's closely held internal investigation report, the pipeline company failed to address a string of separate warnings and lessons from prior incidents that should have alerted the pipeline operators to potential risks during the planned maintenance work during the May 25 shutdown that went awry. The investigation report levels frank criticism at Alyeska management for these oversights.

  • In both press releases and a company-wide internal message July 1 summarizing the internal review, Alyeska failed to present clear and complete descriptions of the May 25 events and relevant past incidents. Alyeska's selective release of information has deflected public attention from a series of troubling mishaps, the latest of which appears to have been triggered by the pipeline company's own operating, maintenance and management deficiencies.

  • Two salient questions emerge from this analysis: If nobody had been present May 25 at PS9, a normally automated facility, when and how would this spill have been detected? Does Alyeska's troubled electrification and automation makeover, formally sanctioned in 2004 and now in place at three of the pipeline's four operating pump stations, increase the pipeline's vulnerability to a major spill?

Concerns about the safety of TAPS operations take on added significance in the glare of the fire and explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform five weeks before the PS9 spill. BP, the major owner of TAPS with a 46.93% share, (2) supplied Alyeska with its current President, Kevin Hostler. The Alyeska president, who came to the pipeline company in 2005, announced his planned retirement July 7, while congressional staffs were investigating worker complaints that Alyeska's repressive and cost-cutting environment jeopardizes safe operations. (3)

A July 15 congressional staff memorandum provides additional perspective on TAPS and other pipeline issues, while this writer's May 5, 2010 briefing on TAPS issues, prepared three weeks before the spill, will introduce readers to the range of challenges that Alyeska faces. Additional information to help readers evaluate Alyeska's previously unreleased incident investigation report on the May 25 mishap will follow, presented in four steps: (1) inquiry into initial accounts of the May 25 incident; (2) review of PS9's critical position as the final pumping station in the pipeline's reconfigured, automated operating framework; (3) examination of mishaps at PS9 that preceded the events of May 25, which may be understood as inadequately addressed warning signs; and (4) consideration of Alyeska's work environment, as experienced by employees. Taken together, these steps lay the groundwork for a summary and analysis of Alyeska's previously unreleased incident investigation report and subsequent concluding comments.

(Read more: click here.)


Approximately 423 miles of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline is above ground to prevent the hot oil pipeline from thawing potentially unstable permafrost soils.

(August 2004)

At this web site you will find fact-based information and commentary about economic and environmental aspects of oil industry operations in Alaska, with special emphasis on the North Slope oil fields and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). Due to the oil industry's power, political clout and media skills, much of the information you will find here is not widely reported or readily available elsewhere.

Three major petroleum companies -- BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil (originally Sohio, ARCO and Exxon) -- control more than 90 percent of the North Slope production and own a similar share of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which built and operates TAPS. The sprawling North Slope complex centers around Prudhoe Bay, the largest producing oil field ever discovered on the North American continent. About one million barrels of oil per day is pumped from beneath the frozen substrate and loaded into TAPS for the 800-mile journey across Alaska to the ice-free port of Valdez in Prince William Sound. There, the oil is loaded on tankers that carry approximately one-third of the oil consumed daily in the western United States.

Richard Fineberg (Baku, Azerbaijan, May 2003)Alaska's North Slope development and its pipeline link to market provide unusual opportunities to observe the actions of decision makers, as well as greater access to the central participants than most other places afford. Based on this experience and supplemented by information from two pipeline-dependent petroleum provinces of the Former Soviet Union, the information presented here points to two significant conclusions:

  • (1) petroleum developers can and frequently do use pipelines to maximize profit and inhibit competition, to the detriment of host populations; and
  • (2) the chronic discrepancy between promise and practice on major oil projects frequently places the populace and the environment at significant and needless risk.

The material presented here was researched and compiled by Richard A. Fineberg, founder and principal investigator of Research Associates of Ester, Alaska. Fineberg has observed Alaska petroleum development for three decades as a prize-winning reporter, as an advisor to the Governor of Alaska on oil and gas policy and as an independent consultant to investors, government agencies and non-profit organizations. In recent years his horizons have expanded to include two oil provinces in the Former Soviet Union, the Caspian Basin and Sakhalin Island. Often controversial, Fineberg's petroleum research has earned a reputation for dedication to factual accuracy and carefully reasoned analysis.

A fundamental premise of this web site is that it falls to each of us, as citizens, to inform ourselves and respond appropriately to the issues and events that shape the broad directions of our society and the detailed fabric of our social interactions. Based on the fact-driven information presented here, readers can come to independent judgments regarding the authenticity of the content, the significance of the relevant facts and the logic and appropriateness of the conclusions. In effect, each of the topics reported here can stand alone as a documented case study in petroleum development.

During the 3-1/2 decades since the discovery of the nation's largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, events from Watergate to the collapse of powerful corporate entities such as Enron and WorldCom demonstrate that large institutions frequently fail -- often by grotesque margins -- to live up to legal and moral obligations and to deliver on their public pronouncements. Concurrently, the major oil companies who have played such a large role in Alaska's development have performed their tasks with a chronic and troubling discrepancy between promise and practice. Despite lavishly funded advertising campaigns and public relations efforts urging that Alaska's oil companies can be trusted as the avatars of social salvation, closer examination reveals a profound gap between what these companies say and what they do. With equally disturbing regularity, when confronted with evidence of those failures, government has failed to protect the public interest. This web site explores the economic and environmental impacts of those failures in concrete terms in the belief that well-informed individuals can and will make a positive contribution to the course of human development.

Reports on pipeline and petroleum development issues found in the "Oil Patch" section of this web site may be understood as case studies providing insight into the relationships among powerful corporate and government institutions and the complex interactions between individuals and institutions. At this broad level, a growing body of research on the political and economic aspects of petroleum development known as petropolitics suggests that the price of oil wealth includes, with disturbing frequency, poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, economic stagnation, corruption, dictatorship and war. The petropolitical approach to petroleum development goes far beyond the conclusions presented here regarding pipeline economics and the industry's chronic discrepancy between promise and practice. While one reader may take the fact-based case studies presented here to support a petropolitical interpretation of petroleum development, another reader may apply the same information to a different understanding of social activity; in any event, these case studies are fact-driven and therefore stand alone.

In sum, the principal purpose of this web site is to gather in one place many of the basic facts regarding the environmental impacts and economic results of oil development in Alaska and elsewhere - information that industry and government prefer to ignore or to spin. Using case studies presented with fidelity to reason and factual accuracy, FinebergResearch.com brings to public attention information about economic and environmental issues related to petroleum development that is not readily available elsewhere.



. ._
Palin Posts on This Web Site:

First-Hand Looks at Sarah Palin's Wacky World

The following were archived Aug. 25 and are still available for viewing (many in downloadable PDF format):

Under a Rogue Star chronicles Sarah Palin's late-2009 book tour and the Alaska oil spills that silently accompanied her -- a clear demonstration of the results of her general failure as governor to pay attention to what she was doing and her particular failure to protect the environment.

ACES in Palin World, from December 2009, takes a clear look at what really happened during the Special Legislative Session of October-November 2007, in which the Legislature (reversing Governor Palin's proposal) established progressivity for the state's production tax.

A November 2009 post covers the Alaska Risk Assessment project, a Palin administrative wreckage that has attracted little national attention to date.

Completing the Palin package on this web site, the following articles were previously archived:

Click here to review July 2009 posts providing more information on the Alaska Risk Assessment project and other problems Palin left behind when she resigned as governor.

In July 2008, I prepared a report for the Alaska Public Interest Research Group on major unanswered questions regarding Palin's Alaska Gas Line Inducement Act (AGIA) and the natural gas pipeline tariff regime. Following up, I put together a packet of documents ("The Palin Papers") that I gave to Governor Palin. During that brief encounter, I requested a sit-down meeting to explain my respectful disagreement with her natural gas team. The governor was either unwilling or unable to meet with this former member of her consulting team and never responded to these concerns. Two weeks later, she ascended to the national stage. Click here for the story.


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