BP's campaign to exploit protected areas

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While BP was spending big on its "Beyond Petroleum" advertising campaign to position itself as an environmentally responsible company, it also publicly backed moves by the Bush government to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

It has also been attempting to woo environmental groups and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature into relaxing guidelines for the World's protected areas and World Heritage Area that states that mining and oil developments are incompatible in four of the five classes of protected areas.

Environmental groups have been campaigning against mounting pressure from the oil industry to be allowed to explore for oil and gas in the coastal plain designated to protect the habitat of caribou and polar bears. BP is currently a major producer of oil from Alaska but its reserves are dwindling. "We've said we support this being opened but we will make a decision on whether we are there... when we understand how it is to be opened and what is there to be discovered," BP Chief Executive John Browne told a news conference. [1]

Nor were those who regulated BP's activities free to raise their concerns within their own agencies. In April 2002 it was revealed that an Alaska Department of Environment and Conservation (ADEC) employee had been charged with insubordination for writing an e-mail identifying legal problems with a proposed BP exploration project. Bill McClarence identified nine legal problems with the proposed BP permit. These included the failure to account for more than 25 tons of hazardous pollutants to be emitted each year and the evasion of pollution standards by improperly counting the facility as a separate operation when it is part of a larger operation.

ADEC Manager John Kuterbach charged McClarence with insubordination for violating a direction that MacClarence should not communicate regulatory problems to any staff members under his supervision. "Bill MacClarence is being harassed for refusing to ignore major pollution violations by a favoured company," stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a legal support group for public employees.

Earlier in the year PEER released the results of a survey of ADEC employees reflecting a widespread perception of regulatory favouritism toward the petroleum industry, political manipulation of pollution enforcement and weak agency leadership.[2]

BP is currently a part owner of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co which operates a 800-mile long Trans-Alaska pipeline. In November 2003, the Wall Street Journal reported that a pipeline supervisor, Ronald Miller, filed a 170-page complaint to the federal-state agency that oversees the pipeline. Miller was alarmed that a plan developed by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co to eliminate six staffed maintenance stations along the route would increase the risk of a major spill. [3]

The Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) too, were publicising the failings of BP in the Arctic with the release of their report Mixed Messages: BP's Record On The Environment And Safety, Alaska Oil Operations, And The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. [4] (This report was the sequel to PIRG's 1999 report Green words, Dirty Deeds). [5]

At its 2004 BP will again be confronted with concern over its failure to rule out exploration or development in protected areas, especially in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The U.S.-based Public Interest Research Group Education Fund has proposed a resolution pressing the company to rule out activities in protected areas. [6]

"The coastal plain is currently off limits to drilling, but BP has not publicly stated whether they would drill in the area if the U.S. Congress ever authorizes drilling there," PIRG spokesman, Justin Tatham, wrote in a media release. "BP contends that it should be allowed to drill in sensitive areas because it has the ability to operate in a manner that will not harm these unique places … We disagree with that argument. The best way to preserve biodiversity and important protected areas is not by making a 'best practices' gamble but to not operate there at all," he said. [7][8]

At its 2004 annual general meeting BP was criticised by Keith Romig, the director of national and international affairs for Pace, an oil workers union, for the company removing its contribution to healthcare insurance for new employees.

While BP is keen to portray itself as open to 'dialogue', campaigners from Azerbaijan and Georgia opposing BP's involvement in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to Turkey were excluded from the meeting. Challenged on their exclusion, the Guardian (UK) reported Sutherland said "it was not a decision to trample on their human rights but related to security details." [9]

A spokesman for the excluded campaigners, Lorne Scotland, told the Guardian that one of those excluded was an Azerbaijani woman "aged 65 and 4ft 6ins tall". "We were quite prepared to cooperate with security, were searched, carried nothing offensive and the only thing we could have done was to ask embarrassing questions," he said.

Nor would BP rule out exploiting the Artic National Wildlife Refuge if the Bush Administration succeeds in opening the area up for oil and gas exploration.

A proposal that the company adopt a policy of ruling out involvement in projects in areas of high environmental value - 'no-go' areas - was once more opposed by BP management and gained support from only 6.5 of the shares voted at the meeting.

While gaining access to the Arctic National Wildlife Reguge is important to BP, it has been active in seeking to get restrictions on all the world's protected areas relaxed. A year after BP announced their rebranding campaign, they participated in what was the be the first of series of meetings initiated by major mining and oil companies with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a small number of environmental non-government organisations.

In the management and identification of future protected areas IUCN plays a central role, bringing together government environmental agencies and non-government organisations. The guidelines developed by IUCN for the identification and management of protected areas are used as the global benchmark with the organisation also acting as the gatekeeper to designation of World Heritage areas.

In June 2001 Caroline Mitchel from BP's UK office joined three dozen other industry and non-government organisations (NGOs) - including the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International - at the Commonwealth Club in London. The key issue on the table was whether there was any prospect of getting NGO agreement that the IUCN protected areas categories I - IV - which are deemed incompatible with oil and mining exploration and development - could be relaxed in return for other trade-offs that companies could provide. [10]

The point of the discussions was to massage enough support amongst IUCN staff and 'moderate' environmental groups for a softening of the IUCN policy at the World Congress on Protected Areas in Durban in September 2003.

At its December 2002 Council meeting the IUCN announced that what had previously been described as a 'partnership' between itself and the mining industry's peak lobby group, the International Council on Metals and Mining (ICMM) - would now be referred to as a 'dialogue'.

While IUCN opted to soften the language - after a barrage of criticism from environmental and indigenous groups calling for the project to be scrapped - the intention to accomodate the mining and oil industry remained. In an attempt to assuage concern the IUCN Council resolved it would not accept "any funding for this dialogue from ICMM or its members … All IUCN inputs into the dialogue will be financed by IUCN itself from non-industry sources" for the project.

However, there were ways around this restriction. In January 2003 a 'dialogue' meeting was held between IUCN and mining and oil industry representatives with a major focus of discussion being IUCN-ICMM participation in the "Sharing a Common Language" (SACL) workshop in May 2003 being organised by Cardiff University. The workshop is a part of a review of IUCN's protected areas categories with an expected outcome being "recommendation for the systems' refinement and development". [www.cf.ac.uk/cplan/sacl/]

A key member of the project team is Cardiff University's Honorary Professor Adrian Phillips, the Vice Chair of IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas. He also represented IUCN in the mining industry-sponsored Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development review, which proposed the IUCN-ICMM partnership in the first place. The SACL project is part-funded by Shell International and membership of the steering committee includes representatives from both Shell and BP. IUCN is listed as a project partner. [11]

While key IUCN personnel and some non-government organisations were enthusiastic about the IUCN 'dialogue', others remained appalled. Discussion of the project was often fiery at the World Congress on Protected Areas in Durban in September 2003. Despite this, however, ongoing discussions about relaxing the process for determining new protected areas and relaxing existing policies continue.

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