for National Geographic News
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which transports crude oil from the largest reserve in the United States to a navigable port, is in trouble.
Fuel company BP brought production at the Prudhoe Bay oil field to a screeching halt last week following discovery of pipe corrosion that led to a small spill.
The announcement, which comes on the heels of the system's largest spill ever last March, has triggered a new round of debate over the aging pipeline's future.
"It is no surprise that BP has had another accident on the North Slope. There have been 500 spills per year since 1996," said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska regional director for the Washington, D.C.-based Wilderness Society.
BP says that tests done after the March spill, which released about 270,000 gallons (1 million liters) of oil before it was contained, have shown that their maintenance program isn't as effective as they thought.
The company is now in the hot seat with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice, and members of Congress who are calling for a close look at Prudhoe Bay's operations.
That pressure adds to ongoing scrutiny by environmental groups, who say BP has neglected its pipeline for years.
"It just illustrates why there are some places that are too environmentally sensitive and biologically sensitive, places where the oil companies should just never go," Huffines said.
BP operates the majority of the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope, with a sprawling infrastructure that includes 1,800 miles (2, 897 kilometers) of pipes (explore an interactive North Slope map).
Currently the system pulls 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of oil a day8 percent of U.S. domestic productionfrom the field.
From there the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company runs the trans-state pipeline that carries the oil across 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) to the state's southernmost ice-free harbor in Valdez.
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