LONDON (AP) -- BP Amoco PLC weathered a surprisingly strong challenge to its environmental record Thursday when shareholders defeated a measure that would have blocked the company from drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The vote came hours before the U.S. Federal Trade Commission approved BP Amoco's $27.6 billion purchase of Atlantic Richfield Co. As part of the antitrust approval for the deal, BP Amoco is selling Arco's oil holdings in Alaska, but that would not alter BP Amoco's exploration plans.
A coalition of activists and investors proposed the anti-drilling resolution at BP Amoco's annual shareholders' meeting, warning of the possible danger from oil exploration in the biologically sensitive refuge.
The group also demanded that the money BP Amoco is spending on its offshore Northstar field be invested instead in the development of solar power.
Shareholders rejected the resolution by a margin of about 8-to-1, according to an initial count of proxy votes.
But the support of more than 13 percent of the proxy voters and the extraordinary effort to galvanize investor backing for a radical change in BP Amoco's plans indicated an unusual depth of opposition to the company's current direction.
''They badly misjudged the mood of the shareholders on this, as evidenced by the size of the vote in favor,'' said Stuart Bell of PIRC Ltd., which advises institutional investors on issues of social responsibility.
The resolution was the first measure on environmental policy ever proposed at a BP Amoco shareholder's meeting.
Executives of London-based BP Amoco defended their record on the environment, noting that BP Amoco's solar energy business is the largest in the world and arguing that its operations have done no harm to Alaska's wildlife.
''No polar bears have died as a result of Northstar's construction,'' BP Amoco chairman Peter Sutherland insisted.
The company played down the outcome of the vote. A spokesman, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said the support for the resolution was overstated due to a number of abstentions and because some ballots have yet to be counted.
Adding to the debate's significance were the concerns that BP Amoco's acquisition of Los Angeles-based Arco would give the British company too big a share of Alaska crude production.
Chief executive Sir John Browne noted BP Amoco's agreement to sell off Arco's oil holdings in Alaska to Phillips Petroleum Co. in order to win FTC approval for the deal.
Browne added that BP Amoco would invest $8.5 billion in its business this year and hopes to boost its profit margins by 2 percentage points.
The resolution to stop all drilling on the North Slope of Alaska was the contentious heart of the meeting. Activists expressed particular fears over BP Amoco's support for lobbyists trying to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
While the hour-long discussions meandered into arcane details such as the mating habits of Alaskan caribou, polite exchanges between activist shareholders and company executives could not mask the underlying passions.
Matthew Spencer, a shareholder and Greenpeace campaigner who helped introduce the resolution, said that BP Amoco risked a ''meltdown'' in its reputation for sensitivity to the environment if it refused to cease drilling in Alaska.
''How far does that green commitment go beyond the color of our filling stations,'' he asked the company's directors. The company's stations sport BP Amoco logos with yellow lettering on a bright green background.
Bell of PIRC urged BP Amoco to map out a plan to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Sutherland, for his part, disputed claims that the Northstar project, which is to start pumping oil through an undersea pipeline in 2001, runs a 25 percent risk of a major spill.
''This risk is simply a fiction,'' he said.
Shareholder Sylvia Currie said after the meeting that she believed BP Amoco was doing an admirable job.
The retired London librarian, who called herself an environmentalist, said the debate over the proposed resolution was unnecessary.
''I walked out.''
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