BP plans to limit access to Prudhoe Bay

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- BP Alaska Exploration Inc. plans to suspend commercial tour access through the Prudhoe Bay oil field to the Arctic Ocean this summer, citing security concerns.

But the state owns the land and the lease says the Department of Natural Resources has to sign off on access limitations, said Mike Abbott, Gov. Tony Knowles' legislative director.

State officials will go along if the restriction is warranted, Abbott said, but they want to discuss the matter with BP first. A meeting is planned for next week.

''If there is a legitimate security concern ... we want to know about it,'' Abbott said.

Tour companies such as Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Tour Co. say losing access to the Arctic Ocean will hurt their business.

''It would be like a hotel down in Denali if Denali (National Park and Preserve) was going to be closed this summer,'' said Brett Carlson of the company.

The rugged Dalton Highway is open to the general public as far north as Deadhorse. Half a dozen tour companies have agreements with BP to cross the Prudhoe Bay oil field to the Arctic Ocean. Some tours include oil facilities, while others are just a shuttle to dip a toe in the ocean, a few miles from Deadhorse.

The tours generally run from late May to early September. BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said his company plans to suspend all commercial tour access for a year.

''We have assessed the security situation at Prudhoe Bay and consulted with security experts and taken the decision to suspend commercial tours this year,'' Chappell said.

BP will take another look at the issue next week in its discussion with the state, Chappell said.

Alyeska Pipeline Sevice Co., owned by a consortium of oil companies including BP, has made a similar decision to suspend tours of its Valdez Marine Terminal. BP holds the largest share of the pipeline.

Carlson of the tour company said BP has refused to reveal specifics of security concerns or discuss potential solutions with the companies.

Northern Alaska Tour even offered to hire a security guard to search clients and follow the company's van as it goes across the oil field. ''Clearly they aren't willing to listen to us,'' he said.

Carlson figures any terrorists would find the trans-Alaska oil pipeline much easier to reach than the sprawling and secured oil field. Besides, the North Slope oil fields are not walled off from possible access by snowmachines and foot traffic, he noted.

''It seems unlikely that if a terrorist wanted to target something in the field they would book a three-day tour with us,'' he said.

The Dalton Highway has rapidly grown in popularity as a tourist destination. The Arctic Ocean, Carlson figures, is the main draw for the 500-mile trip from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.

Of the roughly 16,000 annual Dalton Highway visitors, about 5,000 take tours to the Arctic Ocean, he said.

Deb Hickok, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the restriction would further harm a local visitor industry already bracing for a rough season in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Fairbanks bills itself as the gateway to the far North, she said, and the Arctic Ocean is an important part of it. ''We're hoping the political winds will help change this,'' she said.

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