ANCHORAGE - BP Exploration (Alaska) and its drilling contractor, Nabors Alaska Drilling, neglected to report spills at two Prudhoe Bay well sites, according to state environmental regulators.
The spills, which occurred last December and July 2003, involved "low-risk" well fluids known as drilling muds with a small amount of crude oil, officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said Friday. The spills gushed suddenly out of well-bores, but did not escape the confines of the rig.
DEC investigators believe the December spill involved as much as 294 gallons, while the size of the earlier spill remains undetermined.
Because both spills exceeded 55 gallons, BP and Nabors were obligated under a 2003 compliance agreement that BP signed with the state to report the spills immediately, DEC officials said. That didn't occur, said Leslie Pearson, the agency's spill prevention and emergency response manager.
Pearson said the matter would be referred to the state Department of Law's civil environmental law section. It's not clear whether the alleged violations will result in a fine or some other action, she said.
"It's premature for us now to assess any kind of fine," Pearson told the Anchorage Daily News Friday. "The key thing is we want BP and their contractors to report spills to the state as required."
BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said Saturday the company later reported the spills after learning about them.
"In this case, the drilling rig operators did not feel this type of event qualified for reporting," he said. "Obviously the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation felt otherwise and that's what they're saying as a result of their investigation. We plan to sit down and talk with the DEC to understand their rationale. It's a matter of interpretation."
The DEC launched the investigation after receiving allegations in January from Chuck Hamel, a Virginia resident and longtime Alaska oil industry critic. Hamel put the allegations in a letter to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Another state agency, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, recently investigated another aspect of Hamel's complaint - that the Nabors rig experienced well "blowouts."
The commission determined there was no blowout. Rather, more commonplace incidents known as a "kick" or "well-bore breathing" occurred as a result of expanding natural gas or pressure released from fractured rock strata, causing drilling muds to gush out, according to the commission.