BP facing criminal investigation over Alaskan oil spill

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The Independent Online

BP, the energy giant that trumpets its green credentials, is believed to be under criminal investigation in the US following a massive oil spill in Alaska.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an arm of the US government, is looking into whether BP properly maintained its pipelines in Alaska.

According to one report, the inquiry has been under way for some months, following evidence given by whistle-blowers, but the investigation was widened to include the spill that occurred early last month. Investigators are examining whether BP violated the federal Clean Water Act.

BP is one of the biggest producers in the oil-rich northern state and it operates the largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay. In early March, a badly corroded BP pipeline ruptured on Alaska's North Slope, causing a spill that is thought to have released up to 267,000 gallons, or one million litres.

It is considered the worst oil spillage ever on the North Slope and the second largest crude spill in Alaska - after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

The oil gushed from the pipeline at a spot where it dips to ground level to allow caribou to cross, and has led industry critics and environmental groups to question whether BP is saving money on maintaining its network of wells, pumps and pipelines crisscrossing the tundra - a complaint the company vigorously denies.

A spokeswoman for BP said that the EPA had been to inspect the spillage site during the clean-up operation but she said the company was unaware of any criminal probe.

She added: "We haven't heard from them since [the inspection] and we've had no documents from them."

The EPA did not return calls yesterday.

Separately, BP is thought to be under criminal investigation at the Department of Justice over an explosion last year at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 people. The DoJ has declined to comment.

The oil company has denied any cost-cutting in safety or maintenance at the refinery. A spokesman in Houston pointed out that BP had increased expenditure on such items by 40 per cent between 1999, when it acquired the refinery, and 2004.

In an unrelated development, BP yesterday published its annual sustainability report. It showed that the number of company employees that were dismissed last year for "unethical behaviour or non-compliance with applicable laws or regulations" had almost doubled to 478 workers. The main reasons for the dismissals were safety or security breaches and theft and misuse of company property, BP said. The category includes dismissals over bribery.

The figure was up from 252 cases in 2004, although BP noted that this may have been due to better reporting and more awareness of what constitutes unethical behaviour.

The report showed that BP's emissions of greenhouse gasses had fallen last year, though this was almost entirely due to unplanned shut-downs in its operations. The company produced 78.0 million tonnes of greenhouses gases, down 3.7 million tonnes on 2004. Plant shut-downs, due to hurricanes and other problems, had lowered emissions by 3.5 million tonnes.