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New worry for drivers: BP shuts oilfield
Damaged pipeline in Alaska affects 8% of U.S. oil production; crude surges; record gas prices seen.
By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- In a blow to drivers already struggling with high gasoline prices, BP was forced to shut about 8 percent of the nation's domestic oil production for what seems to be a period of weeks after discovering "unexpectedly severe corrosion" in its pipelines in Alaska.

BP announced early Monday that the pipeline problems had caused it to begin the first shutdown ever in the biggest oilfield in the United States, Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. (Video:BP spokesman comments)

Part of the pipeline that ruptured in March leading to the worst spill on Alaska's North Slope. BP began shutting down Prudhoe Bay after it discovered a small spill and more than a dozen sections of severe corrosion on other pipelines in its field.

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Oil futures, already near record highs hit in July, shot higher on the announcement, and gasoline futures also rose.

The shutdown could be the tipping point that push gasoline prices to a record high, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at New Jersey-based Oil Price Information Service, noting prices are already close to record levels.

"Prices are likely to rise 3 to 5 cents a gallon for the next few days," he told CNN.

The average price for a gallon of unleaded regular stood at $3.036 on Monday, according to the survey that Kloza's firm conducts for AAA. The record high is $3.057, set Sept. 5, 2005, a week after Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. light crude futures surged $2.13 to $76.89 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, back near record highs. Gasoline futures rose 3.35 cents to $2.2650 a gallon.

BP officials didn't say how long the field would be shut in for or how much it's estimated to cost to fix the problem. But in a conference call with reporters, BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone thanked the state agencies and other companies that would be working to fix the problem "in the weeks ahead."

Another BP official said the company's plan is to replace 16 miles of major pipeline in the field.

The news is the latest problem for BP in the United States after a deadly refinery explosion last year and the worst oil spill on Alaska's North Slope in March. It also prompted the federal government to say it would consider lending oil from its emergency stockpile.

Oil analyst Peter Beutel, president of Cameron Hanover, said shutting down an oil field is an expensive and risky step that is only taken in extreme circumstances. He said that suggests the 400,000 barrels a day produced in Prudhoe Bay could be shut off for some time to come.

"They wouldn't be shutting down Prudhoe Bay if this wasn't absolutely necessary," said Beutel. "Once you shut it down, you don't know what will happen when you come back. It could cause all types of problems."

Beutel said he expects about a 5 cent a gallon rise in gasoline futures due to the pipeline problems.

The outage will cut global daily oil output by about half a percent, putting more strain on an already tight market. Beutel said he believed the news in Alaska was outweighing even new threats out of Iran to shut production there if that country is hit with United Nations sanctions over its nuclear program.

"This is almost all Alaska," he said about Monday's price hikes. "It doesn't look like something that will have a quick fix or can be ignored by the markets. I think it's going to be measured in weeks, not days, and it could drag on for months."

Beutel said the shutdown is significant for markets because it was the one supply of oil that traders did not believe to be at risk from either geopolitical events, such as fighting in the Middle East, or hurricanes that threaten U.S. production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, Beutel said he believes the impact will be less severe than caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. And he also expects a quick announcement of the release of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to mitigate the lost supply.

"The Bush administration has made clear it will lend barrels from SPR to combat supply disruptions," he said.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Monday his department will consider loaning emergency supplies of crude oil to refiners caught short of supply following the shutdown, Reuters reported.

Fadel Gheit, oil analyst for Oppenheimer & Co., said he also wouldn't be surprised to see the SPR move to distribute oil to cover the shortfall from Alaska.

"It would be more to calm down the nervous market," said Gheit. "There's plenty of oil around the world [without the SPR], but it would be a wise thing to do. It's all perception and in the markets perception is reality."

Oil producer group OPEC said Monday it was concerned about the Alaska shutdown and would work to ensure that there were no shortages. The group issued a statement to Reuters that also said its spare production capacity was more than adequate to take care of the shortfall resulting from the shutdown.

"The organization will study the situation and react as appropriate," OPEC was quoted as saying.

Gheit said the problems with the pipeline should not be a surprise, adding it's been well known that oil companies are not doing enough regular maintenance on their infrastructure.

When oil prices were low, they were reluctant to spend on that kind of maintenance, he said. But when prices soared in recent years, the cost of shutting down a pipeline or other facilities for maintenance would have meant too much lost production.

"This thing has been in operation for more than 30 years. Corrosion has to happen. Something has to give," Gheit said. "This is going to be a warning to other companies."

Shutdown only latest BP woe

BP (Charts) was already part of a criminal probe into a a 200,000-gallon spill discovered in a pipeline rupture in March, the biggest ever recorded on the North Slope.

BP shares slumped nearly 2 percent in London and New York. The BP Prudhoe Bay Royalty Trust (Charts), the trust that was set up in 1989 to distribute royalties from oil in the field, saw its stock tumbled 14 percent in early New York Stock Exchange trading.

BP's statement said the latest problem was discovered when an inspection completed in late July revealed 16 "anomalies" in 12 locations in a pipeline on the eastern side of the oil field. The corrosion had caused a thinning of the pipeline walls, according to the company.

The company said it received the details about the July inspections on Friday, which it said prompted follow up inspections that revealed a leak and small spill estimated at 4 to 5 barrels. The pipeline was shutdown at 6:30 a.m. Sunday local time.

The closure is the latest incident to hit BP's Alaskan operations, a cornerstone of its global portfolio, and deals another blow to its U.S. image following a deadly refinery explosion last year and a trading scandal.

"We regret that it is necessary to take this action and we apologize to the nation and the State of Alaska for the adverse impacts it will cause," BP America head Malone said in a statement.

Prudhoe Bay is operated by a BP-led group that includes ConocoPhillips (Charts) and Exxon Mobil Corp., (Charts) which itself was involved in Alaska's biggest oil spill when the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in 1989.

BP gave no estimate on how long the field would be offline.

"It will depend on the rate at which we can complete the inspection of these lines and satisfy ourselves and state and federal regulators that they pose no risk to the environment," company spokesman Ronnie Chappell said by telephone to Reuters.

So far it has inspected 40 percent of its transit lines and is inspecting the rest, BP said.

BP spokesman Daren Beaudo later said it would take 24 to 36 hours to shut down the eastern half of Prudhoe Bay, but did not give an estimate on closing western wells. The shutdown does not include the Lisburne field, also on the North Slope, as an inspection showed that pipeline intact.

Past problems

BP pledged last month to spend an extra $1 billion on top of the $6 billion it has earmarked for upgrading safety at its U.S. refineries and to repair and replace Alaskan pipelines.

BP holds just over 25 percent of Prudhoe Bay, which opened up a new era of U.S. oil exploration when it was discovered in 1968. It is expected to pump over 14 billion barrels over its lifetime.

Output from the northern state peaked at over 2 million bpd in the late 1980s, but has more than halved since then.

The Alaska shutdown brings further scrutiny to BP, which is being investigated for a March 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery that killed 15 people and injured 170. BP accepted full responsibility for the blast.

In June, the U.S. futures market regulator said BP tried to manipulate U.S. propane prices by cornering the market in February 2004. BP denies any market manipulation.

Investigators from the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are to travel to Alaska to conduct their own examination of the situation, PHMSA spokesman James Wiggins said on Sunday.

The incident comes at a key time for Alaska's oil industry, as the state considers a massive natural gas pipeline and the legislature debates an overhaul of state oil taxes meant to generate more revenue with prices high.

Oil: Looking at $100

Thirsty for gasoline

-- Reuters contributed to this report Top of page

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