ANCHORAGE (AP) -- BP is withdrawing from Arctic Power, the lobbying organization that is pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and suspending its contributions to the group.
But that doesn't mean it won't look at drilling in the refuge if the American people decide exploration should be allowed, said Paul Laird, a spokesman for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.
''I think BP decided this was a debate in which it no longer wanted to participate,'' Laird said in an interview. The London-based company has said in recent months that it wants to avoid trying to influence public policy.
Last year, BP provided $50,000 for Arctic Power, Laird said.
That was dwarfed by the $3.5 million in state dollars allocated by the Legislature last year. The private budget amounts to $300,000 to $400,000 a year, about a tenth of the state contribution, said Arctic Power executive director Kim Duke.
Overall, there are about 10,000 members of Arctic Power, ranging from oil companies to various businesses and individuals, said Duke. She wouldn't say which major oil companies are involved, or how much money they provide.
She did say ''in kind'' services such as transportation, lodging and so on can total as much as the cash in the private budget.
Roger Herrera, a lobbyist for Arctic Power, said private money from non-oil sources has actually provided more than the oil industry in recent years.
''Their strength is in their broad public support,'' Herrera said, ''such as business people, lawyers and doctors, and union people.''
Arctic Power gets ''modest help'' from nearly all the oil companies, Herrera said.
''The ExxonMobils, ChevronTexacos, Anadarkos, and all the service companies give something to Arctic Power,'' he said.
ConocoPhillips is a contributor, confirms company spokeswoman Natalie Knox, who wouldn't say how much her company puts in.
''We have no plans to change anything,'' she said. ''We plan to continue to be a supporter.''
Congress is expected to take up the issue of opening ANWR to drilling in the coming months, and backers say it has a good chance of passage with the increasing Republican influence in Congress.
ANWR drilling was a centerpiece of President Bush's energy policy this year, but opponents in the U.S. Senate blocked the idea this session.
Laird of BP says his company simply decided not to be part of the lobbying push.
''This is not a message about environmentalism, and it's not a message about ANWR,'' he said. ''It's a message that we are not going to be part of this debate.
''We are going to focus our efforts on other opportunities on the North Slope until the American people decide what they want to do with ANWR,'' Laird said.
''When and if ANWR is opened to exploration and development, we will evaluate that on the basis of whether it's competitive with other opportunities around the world.''
The refuge has such promising geology that BP will be unable to resist when the time comes, said Herrera, who worked for BP for more than 30 years.
''I've never yet seen an oil company that can resist a major sale in a new, sexy area,'' Herrera said. ''There are just no areas like the coastal plain (of ANWR) available elsewhere in the world. You don't sit back and watch others go in there.''
As for BP's decision on lobbying, ''there are strange internal reasons they are not willing to help Arctic Power,'' Herrera said. ''But Arctic Power will continue doing its thing and will succeed with or without BP.'' Herrera himself will be back in the nation's capital in January to work toward that goal, he said.
If Governor-elect Frank Murkowski, a big backer of ANWR in the Senate the last few years, was disappointed with the oil company's decision, he wasn't saying so on Monday.
''We're trying to assess what it means,'' said John Manly, a spokesman for Murkowski's transition group. ''We don't have an awful lot to say at this point.''
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