The oil industry covets yet another Alaskan paradise. And this time it looks like no one can stop them.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, December 1998

Pipe Dreaming
The oil industry covets yet another Alaskan paradise. And this time it looks like no one can stop them.
By Dirk Olin

The vast, treeless expanse of arctic coastal plain that lies along Alaska's frozen northwest shoulder may look like a wasteland, but each summer this immense sweep of water-braided permafrost hosts a teeming spectacle of life. In late spring, North America's biggest caribou herd, nearly half-a-million strong, thunders across the spongy hummocks of sedge, lichen, and moss to breed in its traditional calving zones. Between May and June, millions of migratory wildfowl pierce the pale light to converge on hundreds of icy ponds etched into the landscape. And all season long, peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawks nest in the bluffs along the Colville River as it arcs northward to the Beaufort Sea.

Despite its rather prosaic designation on maps as NPR-A, or National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the area holds inestimable value to a set of environmentalists and wildlife biologists who revere this remote and little-known section of tundra as the largest chunk of undeveloped federal land in the United States. But to a different constituency — to the executives of the 16 petroleum companies that own the enormous oil fields just 70 miles to the east in Prudhoe Bay, to many of the 560,000 Alaskan residents who each year receive a hefty check for their share of the state's petroleum royalties (last year's came to $1,500), and to the politicians who depend on both of these groups' support to stay in office — the reserve's true worth is locked deep underground. Beneath the surface, trapped in folds of sedimentary rock, lie an estimated 2.2 billion barrels of Alaska crude.

The 23-million-acre reserve, roughly the size of Indiana, was originally set up by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 in one of his last acts before collapsing of a heart attack in San Francisco. It was governed by a proviso that explicitly banned oil production except in the case of a national emergency — a stipulation that ensured it would be neither developed nor protected but simply left alone, a wild boreal Eden, for more than half a century. Next month, however, this sanctuary will be threatened by a cluster of oil firms bidding for the right to lay pipelines, erect drilling pads, and construct a host of other facilities in its northeast quadrant — all part of one of the biggest U.S. petroleum deals in more than 10 years.

The latest epic battle over Alaska's wilderness began in 1981, when pro-oil representatives in Congress sponsored legislation to expedite leasing NPR-A's drilling rights. At the time, production costs were too high to make extraction worthwhile. But by the mid-90s technology had improved to the point where the trove could probably be tapped at a profit, and boosters were dispatched with orders to convince the Clinton administration to pry open the reserve. One of the principal architects behind this campaign was Alaska Governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state who was anticipating a tough reelection bid (he had squeaked into office by only 536 votes in 1994.) Acutely aware that his state's budget is essentially underwritten by the oil industry, Knowles lobbied the president and emphasized that if the Democrats wished to retain the Alaska governorship, Clinton should think seriously about developing the reserve.

In February 1997, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit ordered the preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) to determine whether drilling would damage the reserve's ecology. Although studies of this sort typically take up to three years, Babbit ordered the Bureau of Land Management to finish in just 18 months — a schedule that, by coincidence or design, ensured completion before Alaska's voters went to the ballot boxes in November 1998.

Last August, the Interior Secretary announced that the EIS had recommended limited development and presented a 1,300-page plan for leasing four million acres. The plan opens up roughly one-sixth of the reserve but prohibits surface drilling in several "sensitive wildlife habitats" and lays out 79 restrictions covering everything from limiting night lights to avoiding polar-bear dens. On October 7, Babbit signed a Record of Decision that could open bidding as early as January — at which point, advocates on behalf of both the oil industry and the environment proceeded to blow their respective gaskets.

Having lobbied for the gates to be thrown open on the entire reserve, petroleum executives are especially dismayed by the restrictions limiting development around the caribou and migratory-bird habitats — areas that, by geological caprice, happen to stand atop some of the richest petroleum deposits. Babbit's plan, say industry officials, neglects to take into account environmentally sensitive innovations such as "directional drills" that, according to ARCO Alaska, Inc. spokesman Ronnie Chappell, "basically mean we could drill one well on the front lawn of the White House and use that to develop oil throughout the entire District of Columbia, plus the Virginia and Maryland suburbs."

Outraged by the fact that part of the reserve is being opened, wilderness advocates barely know where to begin their rebuttals. First, they lambaste the oil industry's claims of clean-operating progress, pointing to embarrassing discrepancies such as the drilling platform on Endicott Island where workers were recently convicted of illegally injecting hazardous waste into well shafts. The environmentalists also point to the 540 oil spills in Prudhoe Bay in 1997 and demand to know why a fragile ecosystem will be put at risk to plumb an oil trove whose supply could sustain the United States for only 18 months. "Terribly shortsighted," intones Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. "It's a victory for politics over science, wildlife, and future generations."

What environmentalists find most ironic, however, is that an emergency cache that remained untapped throughout the Great Depression, World War II, and the energy crisis of the 1970s is being unlocked in the midst of a global oil glut that has driven the cost of petroleum below the price of bottled water. It's a compelling argument, to be sure. But as environmentalists are chagrined to admit, it is overshadowed by their own rhetoric. The fight to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which lies 150 miles to the east of NPR-A, was won in part by pointing out that if the gas companies needed to expand, it was only fair that they look to the reserve.

Nevertheless, a coalition of environmental groups filed suit against Interior on October 9, charging that the department had failed to justify any need for leasing in an emergency reserve. Insiders, however, are convinced the suit has little chance of delaying the schedule. "The EIS," says BLM spokesperson Stephanie Hanna, "was constructed to withstand any legal challenge." A statement that seems only to underscore the question of what this could presage for the future of Alaskan wilderness. "The oil industry's footprints are all over the Arctic," says Mike Frank, a staff attorney representing one of the eight environmental groups that are plaintiffs in the suit. "If you look at a 1972 map of Prudhoe Bay and then see it today, you're struck by the spread of industrialization. That could be the sad future we're staring at here."

E A R   T O   T H E   G R O U N D
"The Chinook proved what we wanted to prove: that a motor home, if manufactured correctly, can be safe at any speed."

— Charles McGhee, vice president of sales for Chinook Motor Homes, commenting on a speed record set by one of his company's vehicles after it achieved 99.78 miles per hour on the Bonneville salt flats in October.

Illustration by Lloyd Dangle

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