The Senate passed approved a measure in a budget bill Thursday that included a provision to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling - just as the region suffers through one of the worst oil spills in history.

The provision to permit drilling in ANWR was included in a resolution passed last week by the Senate Budget Committee. The full Senate is expected to vote on the issue as early as Thursday.

The measure was prepared by the Republican-controlled Senate in such a way that it would be protected from a filibuster by Senate Democrats opposed to the issue. Drilling in ANWR has been debated at least half a dozen times over the past five years.

The issue is one of the cornerstones of President Bush's National Energy Policy. Bush has said that drilling in ANWR is crucial in order for the United States to cut its dependence on foreign oil.

Environmentalists and numerous lawmakers have derided the plan, saying it would lead to the destruction of caribou and other wildlife that live in the refuge. Moreover, severe safety and technological issues have plagued the big oil companies that drill in nearby Prudhoe Bay and who would be responsible for breaking ground in ANWR should the Senate measure pass.

Because the companies have yet to take measures to address the safety issues at their Prudhoe Bay operations and make much-needed technological upgrades, there have been dozens of oil spills in the area. The situation would likely become even worse if ANWR were to be opened up to exploration, according to environmental officials and activist groups.

Just two weeks ago, the worst spill in the history of oil development in Alaska's North Slope forced the closure of five oil processing centers in the region. Alaskan state officials said that as much as 260,000 gallons of crude oil leaking out of a pipeline in an oil field jointly owned by Exxon Mobil, BP Plc and ConocoPhillips blanketed two acres of frozen tundra near Prudhoe Bay - just a short distance from where President Bush has proposed opening up ANWR to drilling.

The oil spill went undetected for about five days before an oilfield worker detected the scent of hydrocarbons during a drive through the area on March 2 that led him to believe there was a spill from one of the facilities.

It's expected that last week's spill will take a crew of 60 at least two weeks to clean up and to restore crude production to pre-spill levels. The petroleum processing centers will remain closed until then.

The spill underscores the hazards of drilling in the Arctic, despite the fact that oil company executives have downplayed the severity of the technological problems likely to be associated with it.

Last year, unbeknownst to the federal lawmakers who debated the merits of drilling in ANWR, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation started laying the groundwork to pursue civil charges against BP and the corporation's drilling contractor for failing to report massive oil spills at its Prudhoe Bay operation, located just 60 miles west of ANWR.

Despite those dire warnings, neither Congress nor the Senate has shown interest in investigating the whistleblowers' claims or held hearings about the potential problems that could result from drilling in ANWR.

But BP employees have warned lawmakers that oil spills like the one that took place a couple of weeks ago could happen in ANWR if upgrades aren't made to the oil companies' drilling equipment.

In March of 2002, a BP whistleblower went public with his claims of maintenance backlogs and employee shortages at BP's Prudhoe Bay operations that he said could become even worse if ANWR is opened up to exploration.

The whistleblower, Robert Brian, who worked as an instrument technician at Prudhoe Bay for 22 years, had a lengthy meeting with aides to Senators Joseph Lieberman and Bob Graham, both Democrats, to discuss his claims. But the senators have never followed up on his claims.

At the time, Brian said he supported opening up ANWR to oil exploration but said BP has imperiled that goal because it is "putting Prudhoe workers and the environment at risk."

"We are trying to change that so we don't have a catastrophe that ends up on CNN and stops us from getting into ANWR," he said, according to a March 13, 2002, report in the Anchorage Daily News.

BP has long been criticized for poorly managing the North Slope's aging pipelines, safety valves and other critical components of its oil production infrastructure.

The company has in the past made minor improvements to its valves and fire detection systems and hired additional employees but has dropped the ball and neglected to maintain a level of safety at its facilities on the North Slope.

Chuck Hamel, a highly regarded activist who is credited with exposing dozens of oil spills and the subsequent cover-ups related to BP's shoddy operations at Prudhoe Bay, sent a letter to Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) on April 15, 2005, saying the senator was duped by oil executives and state officials during a recent visit to Alaska's North Slope.

"You obviously are unaware of the cheating by some producers and drilling companies," Hamel said in the letter to Domenici, an arch proponent of drilling in ANWR. "Your official Senate tour" of Alaska last March "was masked by the orchestrated 'dog and pony show' provided you at the new Alpine Field, away from the real world of the Slope's dangerously unregulated operations."

Back in the 1980s, Hamel was the first person to expose weak pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port as well as electrical and maintenance problems with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Hamel has said that not only do oil spills continue on the North Slope because BP neglects to address maintenance issues, but the oil behemoth's executives have routinely lied to Alaskan state representatives and members of the United States Senate and Congress about the steps they're taking to correct the problems.

Hamel has obtained some damning evidence on BP to back up his claims. He has photographs showing oil wells spewing a brown substance known as drilling mud, which contain traces of crude oil, on two separate occasions.

Hamel says he's determined to expose BP's shoddy operations and throw a wrench in President Bush's plans to open up ANWR to drilling.

"Contrary to what President Bush has been saying, the current BP Prudhoe Bay operations - particularly the dysfunctional safety valves - are deeply flawed and place the environment, the safety of the operations staff and the integrity of the facility at risk. The president should delay legislation calling for drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Hamel told the Wall Street Journal last year.

In April of 2001, whistleblowers informed Hamel and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who at the time was touring the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, that the safety valves at Prudhoe Bay, which kick in in the event of a pipeline rupture, failed to close. Secondary valves that connect the oil platforms with processing plants also failed to close. And, because the technology at Prudhoe Bay would be duplicated at ANWR, the potential for a massive explosion and huge spills are very real.

"A major spill or fire at one of our [processing centers] will exit the piping at high pressure, and leave a half-mile-wide oil slick on the white snow all the way," Hamel said at the time in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

That year, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found high failure rates on some Prudhoe wellhead safety valves. The company was put on federal criminal probation after one of its contractors dumped thousands of gallons of toxic material underground at BP's Endicott oil field in the 1990s. BP pleaded guilty to the charges in 2000 and paid a $6.5 million fine, and agreed to set up a nationwide environmental management program that has cost more than $20 million.

Hamel also claimed that whistleblowers had told of another cover-up, dating back to 2003, in which Pioneer Natural Resources and its drilling contractor, Nabors Alaska Drilling, allegedly disposed of more than 2,000 gallons of toxic drilling mud and fluids through the ice "to save the cost of proper disposal on shore."

Hamel has had his share of detractors, notably BP executives and several Alaskan state officials, as well as the federal EPA, who have branded him a conspiracy theorist.

But last March, Hamel was vindicated when Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed his claims of major spills in December 2004 and July 2003 at the oil well owned by BP and operated by its drilling contractor, Nabors, on the North Slope, which the company had never reported as required by state law.

Hamel filed a formal complaint in January 2005 with the EPA, claiming he had pictures showing a gusher spewing a brown substance. An investigation by Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation determined that as much as 294 gallons of drilling mud was spilled when gas was sucked into wells, causing sprays of drilling mud and oil that shot up as high as 85 feet into the air.

Because both spills exceeded 55 gallons, BP and Nabors were obligated under a 2003 compliance agreement that BP signed with Alaska to immediately report the spills. That didn't occur, said Leslie Pearson, the agency's spill prevention and emergency response manager.

President Bush has said that the oil and gas industry can open up ANWR without damaging the environment or displacing wildlife. But the native Gwich'in Nation, whose 7,000 members have lived in Alaska for more than 20,000 years, say President Bush is wrong.

"Existing oil development has displaced caribou, polluted the air and water and created havoc with the traditional lifestyles of the people," said Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, in a May 7, 2005, interview with the Financial Times. "No one can tell us that opening the Arctic Refuge to development can be done in an environmentally sensitive way with a small footprint. It cannot be done."

Jason Leopold is the author of the forthcoming memoir, NEWS JUNKIE, to be published in April on Process/Feral House Books. Visit for a preview and to read an excerpt