WASHINGTON — BP has had few friends on Capitol Hill in recent months, so it was something of a surprise Thursday when Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, took up the company's case as an Alaska business.
Don't assume the company's actions in the Gulf of Mexico are associated with BP's stake in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, the veteran Alaska lawmaker told colleagues Thursday during a House hearing to examine pipeline safety issues across the country. The employees of BP are "honorable people," Young said, and defended the safety record of the 800-mile pipeline system operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
Thursday's hearing focused in part on recent concerns raised by some Alyeska employees, who filed complaints with BP ombudsman Stan Sporkin about pipeline safety and maintenance issues and Alyeska's decision to relocate about 30 employees from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Alyeska is owned by BP, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil Koch Industries and Chevron.
Congressional scrutiny of Alyeska's safety record and the effects of cost-cutting intensified this spring after about 5,000 barrels of oil from the pipeline overflowed from a storage container and spilled into a large, lined and bermed containment area.
Not long after the spill, Alyeska's chief executive, Kevin Hostler, announced he'd be stepping down. Hostler, a BP employee on loan to Alyeska, announced he'd be retiring shortly after meeting with the staff of a congressional investigative committee.
Among those testifying at Thursday's hearing of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was state Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks. Guttenberg has been actively protesting Alyeska's decision to move pipeline employees to Anchorage from Fairbanks. He said Thursday after the hearing that he was pleased Congress remains concerned about pipeline safety -- an interest that likely stems from the increased scrutiny of BP in the wake of the April 20 explosion of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Guttenberg also said he continues to be concerned about the reassignment of employees as well as a recent survey that found Alyeska employees are uncomfortable raising concerns about safety beyond their immediate supervisors.
"The last thing we want is an accident, and somebody should have been there that isn't and could have been there," he said. "Or when someone's interviewed about the spill, they say they were afraid to speak up because they might lose their job."
Young, though, argued that the trans-Alaska pipeline has been under constant scrutiny since its construction 30 years ago and is "not a problem. This is a good pipeline," he said.
"To somehow tie this to BP, I think, is piling on," Young said. "We have a lot of great Americans that work for BP, and for some reason now if you work for BP now, you're a bastard. I'm saying that's totally wrong. These are honorable people. The company may have done something wrong in the Gulf, I'm not going to defend them in that area. But as far as the Alyeska pipeline, I'm quite excited about their record."
Young's remarks left one committee member, Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., nearly speechless.
"I always add a little bit of spice to any committee meeting, I'll guarantee that," Young told her.
"I won't speak to Alaska because I don't live in Alaska and I haven't studied it," Richardson said. "But I have been to the Gulf, and I have been studying that, and I don't think you call it honorable, at all."
An Alyeska executive in charge of technical support, Greg Jones, testified that the company's decision to move pipeline employees was "a business decision and it did not affect safety." Only workers with mostly desk-based jobs were shifted to Anchorage, Jones said. Employees who would be expected to respond to any spill or pipeline emergency will remain in Fairbanks, Jones said.
When asked whether he thought pipelines were overly regulated, Jones said no, but that the company would like to see more consistent enforcement of regulations and are wary of what he described as "moving targets."
"We're not afraid of strict standards," he said, but added that the company needs regulations "to be very clear and uniformly enforced."
But good corporate safety practices shouldn't require government prodding, said the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. He noted at Thursday's hearing that it took three orders by the federal Office of Pipeline Safety to force BP to take corrective action after a 2006 spill from a corroded BP transit pipeline in Alaska's North Slope -- corrosion that went unfixed because of corporate cost-cutting.
"That's something that good management should have done on its own, it should not have been ordered," Oberstar said. "There has to be a corporate culture of safety. Safety starts in the board room."