Originally created 09/09/06

BP expert absent long before spill



WASHINGTON - By the time a massive oil-pipeline spill was discovered in March on Alaska's North Slope, the job of BP's senior corrosion engineer had been left unfilled for more than a year, according to an internal company audit.

This vacancy, and others, hindered BP's ability to maintain a "strategic view" of its corrosion prevention activities, the audit found.

The audit also noted that BP Exploration Alaska Inc. had left vacant the top job in its pipeline-corrosion oversight division in Alaska for more than six months in 2005. That division, formally known as the Corrosion, Inspection and Chemicals Group, was headed until the end of 2004 by Richard C. Woollam, who on Thursday refused to testify under oath before a House subcommittee.

Despite Mr. Woollam's silence, lawmakers blasted other executives of the London-based oil giant Thursday for pipeline maintenance lapses and sought explanations for what might have caused the March discharge of more than 200,000 gallons of oil in the Alaskan tundra.

In responding to lawmakers, Steve Marshall, the president of BP Exploration Alaska, said at one point during the hearing that Mr. Woollam's "abrasive nature" may have intimidated workers from raising questions about pipeline safety and integrity.

Mr. Marshall refused to make a direct link between Mr. Woollam's behavior and what he admitted were, "in hindsight," inadequate pipeline maintenance procedures on the North Slope.

Lost in that exchange with lawmakers, however, was the fact that after transferring Mr. Woollam to a nonsupervisory job in Houston in January 2005, the vacancy went unfilled until July of that year.

As of June 2006, when the internal audit was completed, BP still hadn't filled the vacancy left by its former senior corrosion engineer.