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Pioneer Editorial: BP inaction sets need of energy policy

Just how precarious the nation's energy dependence upon oil is shown by the aftereffects of BP's -- British Petroleum's -- shutdown of its pipeline from the North Slope after corrosion was discovered. The price of gasoline, already hovering at $3 a gallon, rose again and federal officials talk of taking oil out of national emergency stockpiles of oil should a refinery ask for it.

Repairing the pipeline may take months, meaning that the nation will lose about 400,000 barrels of oil a day, half the amount which normally flows from the North Slope. Thankfully, prices have since stabilized and hopefully the national reserves won't need to be tapped, as new figures show oil inventories at 5 million barrels a day higher this July than at the same time a year ago.

But what is hard to stomach is how BP's pipeline became so deteriorated and in disrepair at a time when BP and other major oil companies are reaping record profits in the tens of billions of dollars.

It's also hard to stomach how the company got away with an operations plan that apparently calls for no routine maintenance or testing of the integrity of the pipeline. If it weren't for a 270,000 gallon oil spill onto the Alaskan tundra in March, which prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated testing of the line that the extreme corrosion would not have even been detected. In fact, BP's Alaskan operations president told a news program that testing with a device known as a "smart pig," which runs through the line and can detect weak spots in the metal, "has not been run through the pipeline in its history -- in operation since 1977."

The pipeline failure isn't BP's only problem -- the company is also the subject of a federal grand jury investigation, EPA study and congressional investigation. The U.S. Justice Department is considering possible criminal charges in connection with the March oil spill.

The result should lead us in several directions. First, impetus should grow for some sort of windfall profits tax on oil companies, not only to prevent price gouging at the pumps but to redirect some of that money into added pipeline safety and stricter standards by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. It also means redoubled efforts to wean us from our oil addiction, as President Bush called it in his State of the Union address this year.

The sooner we can move to alternative energy sources, including ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen cells and even harnessing the wind, the better. Congress, which only now considered letting the same big oil companies have more areas for off-shore drilling, needs to pass a more comprehensive energy bill yet this year. The nation needs an energy policy that is sustainable for future generations, not one that just calls for more oil drilling.