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Feeding the habit

America's addiction to oil put to the test in Prudhoe Bay

President Bush declared in January that America is addicted to oil. So what happens when an addict loses his stash? The United States came close to finding out this week as BP PLC slashed production from the country's largest oil field, at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The pipeline that carried crude from the eastern side of the oil field was leaking, and the company discovered heavy corrosion along large portions of the line. For a while, it looked as though BP would stop pumping all 400,000 barrels a day that it used to get from the area. Oil prices spiked to $77 a barrel on the news, and commentators claimed that this was the harbinger of a 1970s-style oil recession.

Now that the initial shock of the closure has worn off, the situation doesn't look quite so bad. Prudhoe Bay is still producing about 140,000 barrels daily, and that number could soon be as high as 185,000 if the pipeline that serves the western side of the bay remains open. The price of oil is also down after talk of opening the country's strategic oil reserve and following Thursday's terrorist scare, which may cool airline demand for jet fuel. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman assured consumers Tuesday that America will be able to meet its oil demand with new imports from Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia.

Still, the fact that the pipeline leak didn't precipitate a major national energy crisis shouldn't let BP off the hook. The pipeline had not been thoroughly inspected since 1992. In 2004 a BP survey of employees and contractors at Prudhoe Bay provided a warning to executives that the company was not adequately maintaining the pipeline. In television advertisements, BP trumpets its commitment to preserving the environment and its support for renewable energy. But BP is, first and foremost, an oil company. Maintaining the flow of crude from the fields it operates should take priority over self-congratulatory ad campaigns.

The weakness of government regulations for oil pipelines is also alarming. Because BP's leaky tube was a "low-pressure" pipe, it is exempt from federal upkeep rules, which require regular and extensive integrity checks of other types of pipelines. The Transportation Department will soon propose rule changes that will remove the oversight exemption for pipes in sensitive areas. Whatever new rules the Bush administration decides to adopt, Congress should consider writing specific language into the Pipeline Safety Act, which is up for reapproval after summer recess, requiring tough regulatory standards for low-pressure pipelines. Otherwise America might not get its oil fix &

8212; a strategic necessity until the country can undergo withdrawal.