ANCHORAGE - BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. said it is closing the road that leads through the Prudhoe Bay oil fields to the Arctic Ocean.
The company said Thursday it will not allow tour companies to travel the seven-mile stretch of road this summer, due to security concerns stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"As a matter of policy, we don't discuss our security procedures," BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell told the Anchorage Daily News.
Prudhoe Bay is the nation's largest oil field.
The move caught tour operators and state officials off guard. About 5,000 people travel to the end of the road each year. Many of them make the trip with tour companies operating out of Fairbanks.
State Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, said he initially wondered whether some new national security crisis had cropped up that he wasn't aware of.
"I've asked representatives from BP why they want to shut it down, and so far I haven't heard anything that makes sense," Davies said.
Davies and the rest of the Interior legislative delegation wrote a letter urging Gov. Tony Knowles to intervene on behalf of the tour operators, most of whom are based in Fairbanks.
If BP's decision stands, up to 300 people could be laid off and the Fairbanks region stands to lose at least $5 million in visitor spending, according to Northern Alaska Tour Co., a Fairbanks firm that has taken tourists to Prudhoe Bay since 1986.
Brett Carlson, a partner in Northern Alaska Tour Co., said he and some other tour operators met with BP a month ago to find out more about the company's concerns and hopefully work out a solution.
The meeting went nowhere. BP executives told the operators that the nation was at war and that the company would no longer allow access across the oil fields, Carlson said.
"We were essentially told that we were going out of business because of one company's unilateral decision," Carlson said.
Carlson's company relies exclusively on visitors who want to drive the Dalton Highway, many of whom expect to see the Arctic Ocean. Fencing off access to the exotic shoreline would be devastating for business, he said. It's comparable to owning a hotel at a national park and having a private company tell you the park is closed indefinitely, he said.
Carlson and others have turned to the state for help. On Monday, officials from various state agencies, and the FBI, met with BP executives in Anchorage to hash out the dispute. No resolutions emerged. If anything, the talks made clear that BP thinks it has the right to bar public access to the Arctic Ocean, and the state thinks otherwise.
"We do not feel that under the lease terms that they have the right to curtail public access unilaterally," said Pat Pourchot, state commissioner of natural resources.
To close the road for any length of time, BP needs state approval, Pourchot said.
Carlson said he fails to see the logic behind BP's road closure since dozens if not hundreds of people access the oil fields daily, including villagers in the North Slope community of Nuiqsut, commercial vehicles making deliveries and friends and family members of BP employees.