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Mon, Aug 14, 2006 - Page 11 News List

BP fails to live up to green publicity

PRUDHOE BAY Critics charge that BP spent too little to maintain an ageing field and demanded too much from the infrastructure, running old pipelines at full pressure


Oil pollution at a BP field in Alaska last week has once again damaged the "clean, green" image that the British group has been cultivating for several years.

John Browne, who took the helm of the world's second biggest oil company in 1995, stood out from peers through his commitment to the fight against global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

BP continued along its green path with the adoption in 2000 of a new logo representing a green and yellow sun and a new slogan, "Beyond Petroleum," that repre-sented its efforts to prepare for the future of energy after oil supplies run out.

Last year, the group announced an investment of US$8 billion in alternative energies such as solar, wind and hydrogen fuel cells over the next 10 years.

That policy, along with patronage of the arts in Britain which detractors see as a pressure tactic, earned Browne a place in the "green" issue of US magazine Vanity Fair in April.

However, BP's image was first tarnished in March last year by an explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170, and resulted in a record fine of US$21.3 million.

One million liters

A year later, a leak in an oil pipeline at the vast Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska spilled up to 1 million liters of crude oil, causing the worst pollution in the region's history.

Following a new, smaller, leak at Prudhoe Bay, BP decided on Aug. 6 to halt production, replace the damaged oil pipeline and inspect others.

On Friday however, the group said it was still producing 120,000 barrels of oil per day from the stricken field and hoped to increase that by about a quarter after completion of a planned maintenance shutdown on an operating center.

When operating at full capacity, Prudhoe Bay pumps out 400,000 barrels of oil a day -- 8 percent of total US daily output.

BP expressed surprise at the level of corrosion behind the leak, presenting the incidents as an unfortunate series of events.

"I don't see anything systematic there. These are very, very unfortunate incidents," said Robert Malone, head of BP in the US.

Local employees had nonetheless been criticizing the management of Prudhoe Bay for some time.

Security consequences

In a letter to Browne dated Jan. 14, 1999, a copy of which was eventually leaked to the media, 77 employees said: "The ongoing reductions in staff would have consequences in the area of security," owing, for example, to a reduction in the number of inspections and routine maintenance.

"When, therefore, will the number of deaths, material damage and production losses be enough for all of that to end," they asked following the deaths of two contract workers.

Complaints increased in August 2002 after an oil well fire seriously burned another employee. Four months later, a man died and two others were injured in a pipeline explosion. The group was fined US$1.3 million.

Critics often highlight what they charge are insufficient means used by BP to maintain the profitability of an ageing field, including high pressure levels within the pipelines despite their natural erosion.

"Prudhoe Bay [operating since 1977] was designed for a life span of about a quarter of a century and we have already exceeded unimaginable production levels," the group's spokesman in Anchorage, Daren Beaudo, admitted last week.

The company is now fronting a barrage of criticism in the US and Europe from ecologists, politicians and corporate investors.

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