Opening the Arctic to Development




I

t’s
true that thousands of caribou and other wildlife will be displaced
if Washington, DC lawmakers pass a measure to allow drilling in
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). 


But
there’s an even bigger issue floating under the radar: the
very real possibility of an environmental tragedy that could be
as catastrophic as the 1989 oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez
oil tanker if swift measures aren’t taken to address severe
safety and maintenance issues plaguing drilling operations in 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 BP have
made over the years to draw attention to the dozens of oil spills—three
of which occurred between March and April—that could boil over
at ANWR if BP continues to neglect safety issues and the area has
opened up to further oil and gas exploration. 


As
President Bush renews his calls for development, some of those same
BP employees are blowing the whistle on their company again and
are turning to the one person who helped them expose oil companies’
cover-ups on Alaska’s North Slope. Chuck Hamel, an Alexandria,
Virginia oil industry watchdog, was the first person to expose weak
pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port and electrical and maintenance
problems with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. 


Hamel,
who is protecting the identities of the current whistleblowers,
says not only do oil spills continue on the North Slope because
BP neglects to address maintenance issues, but also the oil executives
routinely lie to Alaskan state representatives and members of the
United States Senate and Congress about the steps they’re taking
to correct the problems. The company also denies its employees claims
of safety issues at its crude oil production facilities on the North
Slope. 


Hamel,
however, has some damning evidence on BP: photographs showing oil
wells spewing a brown substance known as drilling muds (that contain
traces of crude oil) on two separate occasions. Hamel says he’s
determined to expose BP’s shoddy operations and throw a wrench
in President Bush’s plans to open up ANWR to drilling. “I
am going to throw a hiccup into the ANWR legislation,” Hamel
said in an interview. “Until these oil companies clean up their
act they can’t drill in ANWR because they are spilling oil
in the North Slope.” 


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


“You
obviously are unaware of the cheating by some producers and drilling
companies,” Hamel said in his letter to Domenici. “Your
official Senate tour” of Alaska “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.” Domenici’s office said the senator is reviewing
Hamel’s letter. 


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


Hamel
has had his share of detractors, notably BP and several Alaskan
state officials (who said he’s a conspiracy theorist) and the
federal Environmental Protection Agency. But Hamel was vindicated
in March when Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation
confirmed Hamel’s claims of major spills in December 2004 and
July 2003 at the oil well owned by BP and operated by its drilling
contractor, Nabors, on the North Slope, which the company never
reported, as required by state law. 


Hamel
filed a formal complaint in January with the EPA, claiming he had
pictures showing a gusher spewing a brown substance. An investigation
by Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation determined
that as much as 294 gallons of drilling mud was spilled when gas
was sucked into wells, causing sprays of drilling muds and oil that
shot up as high as 85 feet into the air. 


Because
both spills exceeded 55 gallons, BP and Nabors were obligated, under
a 2003 compliance agreement that BP signed with Alaska, to report
the spills. That didn’t occur, said Leslie Pearson, the agency’s
spill prevention and emergency response manager. 


BP
spokesperson Daren Beaudo said the company did report the spills
after learning about them and said it wasn’t that big of a
deal. “In this case, the drilling rig operators did not feel
this type of event qualified for reporting,” Beaudo told the

Anchorage Daily News

in March. “Obviously the Alaska
Department of Environmental Conservation felt otherwise and that’s
what they’re saying as a result of their investigation. It’s
a matter of interpretation.” Beaudo said the agency’s
findings are in line with BP’s investigation that the spills
did not cause any harm to the environment, aside from some “speckles”
on the snow. 


But
what’s troubling to Hamel is that Alaska’s Department
of Environmental Conservation has let BP off with a slap on the
wrist. The agency is not penalizing BP; rather it said that it will
ensure that the company reports other spills in a timely manner.
That plays into Hamel’s other theory: that the state of Alaska
is in cahoots with the oil industry and routinely fails to enforce
laws that would hold those companies liable for violating environmental
regulations. 


In
April 2001 whistleblowers informed Hamel and Interior Secretary
Gale Norton, who at the time was touring the Prudhoe Bay oil fields,
that the safety valves at Prudhoe Bay, which kick on in the event
of a pipeline rupture, failed to close. Secondary valves that connect
the oil platforms with processing plants also failed to close. Because
the technology at Prudhoe Bay would be duplicated at ANWR that means
that the potential for a massive explosion and huge spills is very
real. “A major spill or fire at one of our [processing centers]
will exit the piping at high pressure, and leave a half-mile-wide
oil slick on the white snow all the way,” Hamel said in an
interview with the

Wall Street Journal



In
March 2002 a BP whistleblower brought up the same issues and went
public with his claims of maintenance backlogs and employee shortages
at Prudhoe Bay that he said could worsen spills on the North Slope. 


Robert
Brian, the whistleblower who had worked as an instrument technician
at Prudhoe Bay for 22 years, had a lengthy meeting with aides to
Senators Jospeh Lieberman and Bob Graham, both Democrats, to discuss
his claims. At the time, Brian said he supported opening up ANWR
to oil exploration, but said BP has imperiled that goal because
it is “putting Prudhoe workers and the environ- ment at risk.” 


In
2001, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found high
failure rates on some Prudhoe wellhead safety valves. In the 1990s
the company was put on federal criminal probation after one of its
contractors dumped thousands of gallons of toxic material underground
at BP’s Endicott oil field in the 1990s. BP pleaded guilty
to the charges in 2000, paid a $6.5 million fine, and agreed to
set up a nationwide environmental management program that has cost
more than $20 million. 


But
Hamel and the whistleblowers said BP continued to violate environmental
rules and then attempted to cover it up. A BP spokesperson said
those claims “are an outright lie.” 


Still,
despite the charges leveled against BP, which were aired as early
as April 2001, the Senate never held hearings on the safety issues
that over the years have caused dozens of oil spills at oil production
facilities on the North Slope. Now, with gasoline prices soaring
and Bush’s claims that drilling in ANWR would reduce this country’s
dependence on foreign oil, lawmakers are being urged to once again
investigate the issue.





Jason Leopold’s
investigative pieces have been published in the



Nation



,
the



Financial Times,






Utne Reader,



and numerous other national and international publications.