Alaska's Crude Threat: Oil Spills on the North Slope Are Routine, and So Are Oil Executives' Lies about Them

By Leopold, Jason | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Alaska's Crude Threat: Oil Spills on the North Slope Are Routine, and So Are Oil Executives' Lies about Them


Leopold, Jason, Earth Island Journal


Thousands of caribou and other types of wildlife will be displaced if DC lawmakers pass a measure to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

But there's an even bigger issue: the very real possibility of an environmental tragedy as catastrophic as the 1989 oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker. Swift measures are needed to address the severe safety and maintenance issues plaguing drilling operations in nearby Prudhoe Bay--North America's biggest oil field, 60 miles west of ANWR--and other areas on Alaska's North Slope.

That's just one of many alarming claims that employees working for British Petroleum (BP), the parent company of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., have made over the years. BP Exploration (Alaska), an Anchorage-based company, manages the 24-year-old Prudhoe Bay on behalf of Phillips Alaska Inc., ExxonMobil, and other oil companies. The BP employees issued the claims as a way of drawing attention to the dozens of oil spills--three of them in March and April alone--that occurred in Prudhoe Bay. They warn this could happen at ANWR if BP continues to neglect safety issues and the area is opened up to further oil and gas exploration.

Now, as President Bush renews his calls to open ANWR to development, some of those very same BP employees are blowing the whistle on their company yet again. They are turning to the one person who helped them expose the oil companies' cover-ups on Alaska's North Slope.

Chuck Hamel, an Alexandria, Virginia oil industry watchdog, has been leading the fight for the past 15 years against shoddy crude oil operations in Alaska by BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil. Back in the 1980s, Hamel was the first person to expose electrical and maintenance problems with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and weak pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port. Four years ago, Hamel and the BP whistleblowers brought safety and maintenance issues unaddressed by the oil companies to the attention of Congress and the public.

Hamel, who is protecting the identities of the current whistleblowers, says not only do oil spills continue on the North Slope, but the oil behemoth's executives routinely lie to Alaskan state representatives and members of Congress about the steps they're taking to correct problems. At the same time, the company denies its employees' claims of safety issues at its crude oil production facilities on the North Slope.

Hamel, however, has gotten some damning evidence on BP: photographs shot on two separate occasions showing oil wells spewing a brown substance known as drilling mud, which contains traces of crude oil. Hamel says he's determined to expose BP's shoddy operations and hinder President Bush's plans to open up ANWR to drilling.

"Until these oil companies clean up their act," said Hamel, "they can't drill in ANWR because they are spilling oil in the North Slope." If oil companies continue to fail to address safety problems at the North Slope, "they'll have another Exxon Valdez" type of oil spill on their hands, Hamel said.

On April 15, Hamel sent a letter to Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate energy and natural resources committee, saying there have been three spills between late March and early April. This comes at a time when BP and two of its drilling contractors are under investigation on charges of failing to report other oil spills in late 2004 and January 2005.

"You obviously are unaware of the cheating by some producers and drilling companies," Hamel said in the letter to Domenici, an arch proponent of drilling in ANWR. "Your official Senate tour [of Alaska, in March] was masked by the orchestrated 'dog and pony show' provided you at the new Alpine Field, away from the real world of the Slope's dangerously unregulated operations."

Also in the letter, Hamel claimed that whistleblowers had told of another cover-up, dating back to 2003. Pioneer Natural Resources and its drilling contractor, Nabors Alaska Drilling, had allegedly disposed of more than 2,000 gallons of toxic drilling mud and fluids through the ice "to save the cost of proper disposal onshore. …

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