But in arguing against drilling in the pristine wildlife refuge, opponents of the issue point to the routine oil spills at BP's Prudhoe Bay facilities and the company’s continued neglect of its vast network of pipelines in the region as a primary reason to set aside debate on the issue.
The Prudhoe Bay field, the country’s largest, accounts for 8 percent - or 400,000 barrels per day - of the country's domestic crude supply. Production at Prudhoe Bay began in 1977, and during its peak in the 1980s the field produced more than 1 million barrels of oil per day. BP operates Prudhoe Bay and shares the costs with owners Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and Chevron. BP’s decades long presence in the North Slope would put the company in the lead position to drill in ANWR if the refuge were opened to exploration, Alaskan lawmakers have said.
US Attorney Nelson Cohen agreed that BP’s Alaska operations were shoddily run, stating in federal court in November that for more than eight years BP failed to run a cleaning device through its pipelines and allowed corrosion to build up.
That track record rubs environmentalists and opponents of drilling in ANWR the wrong way.
They say that BP’s emphasis on profit at the expense of its Prudhoe Bay pipelines could very well lead to an environmental disaster if a ban on drilling in ANWR was lifted because the company continues to neglect its own infrastructure.
The BP documents, which include emails, photographs, videos, and letters sent to BP executives and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and even President Bush, as well as internal reports, all of which were early warnings about problems plaguing BP's Prudhoe Bay operations, were written by more than 100 company whistleblowers and date back as far as 1999.
The documents provide a detailed picture of how BP seemingly ignored dozens of early warnings from employees that its drilling operations on Alaska's North Slope would be doomed if the company did not take immediate steps to upgrade its pipelines and other infrastructure.
Moreover, these records show how that over the course of five years federal and state lawmakers and other officials routinely failed to follow up on the warnings and take direct action to ensure that BP did not jeopardize a critical part of the country's oil production and that it maintained the safety of its workforce.
Chuck Hamel, an activist and former oil broker based in Alexandria, Virginia, launched the now defunct web site that housed the documents ANWRnews.com. Hamel was contacted seven years ago by a group of BP employees who were concerned that the company's cost-cutting measures at its Prudhoe Bay operations would have an adverse impact on safety and operations.
"We were concerned about BP's cost cutting-efforts undermining our ability to respond to emergencies, and reducing the reliability of critical safety systems," states a letter sent to Hamel signed by dozens of BP's Prudhoe Bay employees on April 13, 2001. "We were concerned about the lack of preventative maintenance on our equipment. We had suffered a major fire, which burned a well pad module to the ground, and nearly cost one of our operators his life."
Hamel is credited with exposing weak pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port in the 1980s and electrical and maintenance problems with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, immediately took up the BP whistleblowers' cause and in mid-2001 wrote a letter to BP President Lord John Browne raising the issue of safety and maintenance problems at the Prudhoe Bay facilities.
"Courageous 'Concerned Individuals' contacted me for assistance in reaching you," Hamel's April 11, 2001, letter to Browne said. “They have not succeeded in being heard in the past two years in London, Juneau or Washington. I am again a reluctant conduit. They hope that you will take whatever action appropriate to effect corrective action which would protect the environment, the facilities, and their safety."
Hamel sent a copy of the letter to President Bush. While Browne promised to look into the issues plaguing Prudhoe Bay, the situation there worsened as oil spills became routine, and pipelines continued to rupture.