Last November, the oil company British Petroleum (BP) plead guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $20 million fine for violating the Clean Water Act related to a massive oil spill that occurred at BP’s Prudhoe Bay operations in Alaska’s North Slope two years earlier.
A federal judge also placed the company on probation for three years and said the 201,000 gallon oil spill was a “serious crime” that could have been prevented if BP had spent more time and funds investing in pipeline upgrades and a “little less emphasis on profit.”
The oil spill—the worst in the history of oil development in Alaska's North Slope— resulted from a severely corroded transit pipeline that forced BP to close five oil processing centers in the region.
Alaskan state officials said that as much as 260,000 gallons of crude oil leaked out of a pipeline in an oil field operated by BP and jointly owned by Exxon Mobil, and ConocoPhillips and blanketed two acres of frozen tundra near Prudhoe Bay - just 60 miles from where President George W. Bush has proposed opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration.
The spill went undetected for about five days before a BP oilfield worker detected the scent of hydrocarbons during a drive through the area that led him to believe there was a spill from one of the companies’ facilities.
Profits from drilling in Alaska’s North Slope have declined over the past seven years as the volume of oil extracted from the North Slope fell from 800,000 barrels in 1980 to half that amount, which is part of the reason BP and other companies have been so eager to drill in ANWR.
As the volume of oil in Prudhoe Bay decreased, BP began to institute cost-cutting measures, laying off hundreds of employees and cutting back on safety and maintenance of pipelines and other infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay.
In a March 16, 2006 interview with the New York Times, longtime BP employee Marc Kovac said he and his co-workers warned the company numerous times that cost-cutting measures affecting routine maintenance and inspection would increase the likelihood of accidents, pipeline ruptures and spills.
"For years we've been warning the company about cutting back on maintenance," Kovac told the New York Times. "We know that this could have been prevented."
Kovac made those comments immediately following the oil spill for which BP pleaded guilty to last November.
Drilling in ANWR has been a cornerstone of President Bush's National Energy Policy since it was first unveiled in May 2001.
With oil prices reaching record levels on a near daily basis and consumers paying more than $4 for gasoline President Bush has once again called on Democrats in Congress to lift the ban President Bill Clinton put into place against drilling in ANWR. There are currently 17 different bills in Congress calling for drilling in ANWR.
The issue has become such a centerpiece of the presidential debate that Arctic Power, an ANWR lobbying group that has received tens of millions of dollars from Alaskan state officials, has reopened its Washington, D.C. office in hopes of winning support from lawmakers to back the issue. BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Exxon were members of the lobbying group paying as much as $50,000 annually to lobby lawmakers. As support for drilling in ANWR waned the companies pulled out of the lobbying group. But Exxon is still a member.
Some of the lobbying appears to have paid off.
"With a drilling footprint that covers just a tiny fraction of this vast terrain, America could produce an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil," President Bush said in a weekly radio address June 21.