As the brutal battle over proposed drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge grinds on, a former oil worker returns to the North Slope in search of the truth about the pro-exploration argument. His conclusion? (Brace yourself.) The unthinkable is the right thing to do.
AT TWO A.M. ON A FALL NIGHT IN 1985, I STOOD on the wide gravel beach at Barter Island, Alaska, facing the Arctic Ocean. Behind me, across Barter Lagoon, hung the dim lights of the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. Overhead, the aurora borealis was going off the scale, pulsing and waving over half the night sky. To my right, a white dog trotted up the beach, making Z turns in my direction.
Alaska, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Drilling for OilIllustration by Guy Billout
I had just finished working a 34-hour shift off-loading a drill rig for shipment inland, so by the time my bleary mind registered that this was not a dog at all, but a polar bear, the creature had come closer to me than I was to the ladder of our cargo barge. It would make a good story if the bear had shredded my Carhartts before I climbed to safety, but this one was more interested in a whale kill dragged ashore by Inupiat hunters the week before. The bear didn’t notice me until I was on the bow of our 200-foot icebreaker barge, exhilarated by my close encounter.
A minute later, two Inupiat on Honda three-wheelers came barreling down from Kaktovik to run the bear off. From the wheelhouse of our tugboat, the mate swung a spotlight, illuminating the animal as it ran over packed floes and swam in the black water between them, glaring back with eyes the color of ink and wide with fear and irritation. I felt insulated, and powerful in a way, and glad for our machines. But there was something haunting about the bear—something haunting about the entire job.
It would be years before I learned that the cargo we carried was a British Petroleum/Chevron exploratory rig, which that winter was assembled near the mouth of the Jago River, where it drilled the now-infamous KIC#1—the “Kick” well—named for the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, the native company that owns the coastal tundra surrounding it. Even now, what the KIC well found under the ice remains a closely guarded secret, a mystery heightened by the fact that it is not just the first; it is the only oil well ever drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
IT’S NOT OVER YET
FROM 1980 TO 1989, I worked on Alaska’s North Slope, crewing on barges for Crowley Maritime, a transportation company operating out of Prudhoe Bay, the largest of the Arctic oil fields. We built gravel islands for offshore oil rigs, ferried crews, and hauled prefabricated processing facilities up from the lower 48.
Back then, I knew nothing about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), whose origins date back to Public Land Order No. 2214, a 1960 executive action by the Eisenhower administration establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Range, an 8.9-million-acre wedge of unspoiled earth hugging the Canadian border. Nor did I know much about Jimmy Carter’s Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the 1980 law that federalized more than 100 million acres of Alaskan lands, redesignated the range a refuge, and more than doubled its size, to 19.5 million acres.
While almost all of the original range was designated wilderness, Section 1002 of ANILCA deferred the status of 1.5 million acres of coastal plain, a treeless stretch of tundra about 100 miles wide by 30 miles deep—the 1002 (“Ten-Oh-Two”) area—until the oil and gas potential could be measured and environmental impacts estimated. Locked within that study area lay the KIC lands, their ownership established by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act but held in limbo by ANILCA—a battle of acronyms. In 1987, Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel filed the department’s findings with Congress, along with the Reagan administration’s recommendation: The 1002 should be opened to development.
That never happened, primarily because of the Exxon Valdez, which in 1989 ran aground on Bligh Reef, in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude all over industry plans to open ANWR. And in the years since I earned my little slice of the Alaskan pie, the place has become a political seesaw, a debate revisited with each new Congress and president. The George W. Bush administration hit the oil patch running, yet despite a Republican Congress and a powerful Alaska delegation led by GOP senator Ted Stevens, efforts to push ANWR drilling through the Senate have failed. In 2002, ANWR provisions were approved by the House, limiting development to 20 noncontiguous patches in the 1002 totaling 2,000 acres—one-tenth of one percent of the refuge. In the subsequent two years, that proposal failed repeatedly to overcome threats of a Senate filibuster, until it became clear that key Republicans wouldn’t go to the wall over ANWR.
Chief among them was New Mexico’s Republican warhorse, Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. An insistent proponent of drilling, by the end of 2003 Domenici had indicated he had no intention of letting ANWR endanger his energy plan. Senate Republicans left ANWR out of the Energy Policy Act of 2003, while pushing oil and gas leasing in the Rockies, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska’s western Beaufort Sea, and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), the 24.2-million-acre tract west of Prudhoe Bay set aside in 1923. On November 25, the 2003 energy bill failed the Senate yet again.
Environmentalists cried victory, but is it really over? I have listened to the debate over Arctic drilling for 20 years, and I believe it is far from finished, that it will never be finished until oil is obsolete or the first production wells start pumping ANWR crude into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Election-year politics may have buried ANWR for now, but two points are clear: If reelected, George W. Bush will continue his pursuit of drilling in ANWR. And no matter who is elected, Alaskan lobbyists and politicians will never let this one go—there’s simply too much at stake. “It’s never decided,” Senator Stevens has vowed several times, “until I win.”
Meanwhile, both pro- and anti-drilling camps have dug their heels into the Arctic permafrost, each side deploying an array of facts and statistics, all of them “true,” and most mutually exclusive. The Bush administration insists that, in the wake of 9/11, America’s longtime goal of reversing dependence on foreign oil has become a necessity. The oil companies pledge that drilling can be done cleanly, thanks to new technologies like extended-reach drilling and man-made ice roads that melt every spring.
Environmentalists stress that any development is too much: The 1002 is home to the largest concentration of onshore polar bear dens in the world, the summer home to some 138 species of migratory birds, and the calving grounds of the 123,000-member Porcupine caribou herd. Even 2,000 acres of development, opponents argue, would create a maze of pipelines and service roads extending impacts a hundredfold. Moreover, they say, a defeat here will mortally wound the very idea of wilderness protection.
There’s also the little matter of how much oil there is (no one really knows) and whether oil companies can ever be trusted as stewards (no one knows that, either). As if this weren’t enough, native Alaskans themselves are divided: The Inupiat Eskimo of the North Slope largely favor drilling, but the Gwich’in Athabascans, to the south, don’t.
I was divided myself. My family’s ties to the oil business go back three generations. My grandfather was a tanker captain for Standard Oil, my father the president of Chevron Pipeline Company. My sister, brother-in-law, and cousin, not to mention half a dozen friends—oil people, all. On the North Slope, I’d gained intense respect for the people who work there, but I’d also seen the ways that the Arctic’s harsh, remote conditions could drive crews to cut corners.
So, in 2002, I decided to drill into the issue—to drill into myself, frankly. My approach was admittedly personal. In my tiny way, I had helped bring drilling to ANWR, and I couldn’t forget that bear as he escaped across the ice. I wondered, Is it possible to take care of the bear and still feed the machine?
After a journey that took me back to the Arctic for the first time in 13 years, and through dozens of interviews with policy analysts, native Alaskans, wildlife biologists, and congressional staff experts, I became convinced of only one thing: Both sides are far too entrenched to see the other side clearly.
It’s time for a compromise, and as much as I can hear the cries of readers rising out of their chairs in choked protest, the reality of ANWR begs something new. Distasteful as it is, it’s time to allow at least some drilling in the refuge.
BEAUTIFUL DOWNTOWN DEADHORSE
IN THE HEART OF THE NORTHERN SUMMER, I boarded an Alaska Airlines 737 from Anchorage to Deadhorse, a Prudhoe Bay outpost composed almost entirely of seasonal oil workers. I climbed the aft stairway behind a surly 300-pound guy wearing a T-shirt that read, if you don’t think hell freezes over, then you’ve never been to prudhoe bay. I recognized the attitude: Flying into Deadhorse for a months-long hitch was always like joining a planeload of convicts—albeit really well-paid ones—on their way to some industrial Devil’s Island.
Life was easier now. “All I gotta do is my 14 days,” the guy said. He worked the new norm—two weeks on, two weeks off—maintaining the more than 400 miles of gravel roads that spiderweb the North Slope. Those roads were clean now, he said. “They bake the gravel. Run it through a big outdoor oven and cook the oil out of it. You can eat off that gravel.”
An appetizing image, perhaps, but I remembered dirtier days. The first time I was asked to illegally discharge slops into the Beaufort Sea came as a quiet request accompanied by a nod toward a giant red holding tank on the edge of the gravel shore near our camp at West Dock, on the blunt end of a causeway stretching off Prudhoe Bay’s northwestern edge. A crew leader showed me how to stuff the hose into the gravel and open the valve, burying the seep of hydrocarbons and avoiding a telltale rainbow slick. To be fair, these practices were not the norm, and theoretically, at least, much had changed. A new Culture of Clean Oil emerged from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, taking legal form in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. OPA ’90 sharpened the teeth of the Clean Water Act when it came to spills, but its real impact was accountability: It thrust criminal liability not only onto corporations but all the way down to employees like me.
A decade later, the industry’s main argument is that oil production is dramatically cleaner than it was in what drillers like to call the “ram and cram” days. Now, drill bits as small as my fist snake their way four miles through the earth to previously inaccessible reservoirs, and isolated production “islands” make the sprawling well pads of old seem like vestiges of the Stone Age. In 1970, a 20-acre drill site could access 502 acres of subsurface area; by 2000, a six-acre site could reach more than 32,000. While industry touts this ability, watchdogs like the Wilderness Society charge that those claims are exaggerated: Extended-reach drilling isn’t used as often or as effectively as oil companies would have us believe, and ice roads, lauded as the replacement for gravel infrastructure, place enormous stress on freshwater resources, something the 1002 doesn’t have in abundance.
I wanted to see for myself. Of the more than 1,300 production wells in operation on the North Slope, those in ConocoPhillips’s Alpine field, 70 miles west of Prudhoe near the Inupiat village of Nuiqsut, and BP’s Northstar Island, six miles offshore from Prudhoe Bay, represent the state of the art. “Near-zero-discharge” facilities recycling everything from drilling waste to plastic-foam cups, these are the models for how ANWR would be drilled.
But after 9/11, security threw up a wide barrier, and journalists were about as welcome as terrorists. Oil-field press tours, I was informed, had been stopped. It didn’t help matters that I was on assignment for Outside, which had published a critical article on ANWR drilling in 2000: As a leery representative of the BP subsidiary BP Exploration (Alaska) explained to me, the company was not eager to receive the same treatment again. Furthermore, he said in a subsequent conversation, he had read a New York Times Magazine column I’d written in 2001 about my part in the illegal discharge of slops in the early 1980s, and BP’s legal department had brought it to the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency.
When access is as controlled as it is on the North Slope, it makes you wonder what’s really going on. Barred from the oil fields, I roamed Deadhorse—really just a network of raised gravel roads connecting oil-field service companies—talking to the people I trusted most: the crews themselves. And a dozen workers all said the same thing: You had to watch every move you made. Improper disposal of oil would get you shipped back to Anchorage.
In the years I’d been gone, down-to-the-last-drop spill recovery had become big business, as I found over at the prefab aluminum headquarters of Alaska Clean Seas, an industry-owned nonprofit that coordinates oil-spill response on the Slope. ACS’s 1980s precursor was an inept shell of a company called ABSORB, which ran an inept shell of a boat that I hardly saw move in ten years, much less clean up any oil. Now, as their planning director, Lee Majors, told me, ACS swings into action no matter how small the spill.
“If a front-end loader blows a hydraulic line on the ice road, we’re out there with spoons, to get every drop,” Majors said. He pointed out the window to a gravel pad occupied by a drilling contractor. “Look underneath—those are duck pans. Every single piece of equipment on the Slope has one.” I did look, and looked for the next two days. Every loader, rig, road grader, and pickup sported strap-on plastic pans to catch leaking oil.
Just as OPA ’90 arose from the slick of the Exxon Valdez, this new mania grew out of disaster. From 1993 to 1995, employees of Doyon Drilling, BP’s drilling contractor at its Endicott Island facility, ten miles east of Prudhoe Bay, disposed of a dizzying array of solvents and petrochemicals by pumping them into underground voids. By 1999, both companies had pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court—Doyon for the dumping, and BP Exploration (Alaska) for concealing it from regulators. BP was put on five years’ probation, and together they were slapped with $25 million in penalties. One Doyon employee went to jail.
At Doyon’s industrial shop in Deadhorse, I ran into a casing foreman named Alec Luna, pressing a chisel into a grinder that sent a waterfall of sparks onto his feet. “What do you want?” he barked, as if he’d been waiting all these years to kick my ass. Luna talked loud, like he didn’t give a damn who heard him.
“A lot of old hands will tell you it was better in the old days, but I ain’t one of them,” he said. “I seen a guy killed from me to you—guy gets hit in the side of the head by a sling of pipe, and boom! A human life is just gone, kids got no father, wife ain’t even got the satisfaction of divorcing him.” He laughed without mirth. “Seeing that makes you want to be better, makes you want to be safer.”
Safety was one thing, but when I asked Luna about Endicott, he gave me that look again. “I ain’t gonna talk about that,” he said—he hadn’t been there, and a lot of good men took the fall. “Bottom line,” Luna told me, “you can’t get away with being sloppy; flat-out truth is, you’ll lose your job.”
DOES IT PAY TO BE CLEAN?
When old hands grumble about environmental standards, it’s a good sign things are moving in the right direction. But anecdotal evidence is hardly proof. So I turned to my own contacts, including the CFO of one of the four largest oil companies in the world, who agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity.
“We’re the deep pockets,” my friend told me. “Oil spills mean lost product plus cleanup costs. And ever since the Exxon Valdez, the bar has continually been raised. We’re paying clean-up costs on operations from 20 years ago that were in full compliance of laws at the time. I tell my managers this all the time: Don’t tell me you disposed of waste materials in some landfill and it’s all according to EPA regulations, because I’m going to assume at some point we’ll be required to go back and clean up—at greater costs. We want zero discharges.”
In other words, economics ensures clean drilling. Another contact, the general manager of health, safety, and environment for the overseas branch of a major oil company, spelled it out for me: “The real reason for clean operations,” he said, scribbling something on a piece of paper, “is this.” He shoved the paper across the table. On it, he’d drawn a giant dollar sign.
Yet even he acknowledged that zero discharges doesn’t mean zero risk of spills. In the early days of an oil field, profits are high and risk is low. An effervescent mixture of crude oil and water and natural gas comes boiling out of the ground, bubbling like Coke from a well-shaken can. But as the field ages, the flow of oil declines, while feeder pipelines and shutoff valves grow old. As maintenance costs rise, so do the costs of clean production.
In March 2003, the National Academy of Sciences, the D.C.-based nonprofit that the government turns to for unbiased analysis, warned about the relationship between costs and cleanup. In The Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on the North Slope, the NAS found that while, so far, “most spills have been small and … damaged areas recovered,” a weak regulatory climate spelled concern for the future. “Because the obligation to restore sites is unclear,” the report stated, “and the costs of dismantlement, removal, and restoration are likely to be very high, the committee judges it unlikely that most disturbed habitats … will be restored.”
According to some, BP’s management of the 26-year-old Prudhoe Bay field is a case in point. In 2001, a group of 70 employees went public with allegations that BP was in violation of its 1999 probation regarding spill prevention and response. Among them was Bill Burkett, a production operator who, until his retirement in 2002, had put in 20 years on the North Slope. In the 1990s, he maintains, BP brought new wells online to boost sagging production, while managers cut personnel and maintenance. Employees who complained were marginalized. “In the end,” he said, “they did nothing to address our concerns.”
On August 16, 2002, an explosion at BP’s well A-22 in Prudhoe Bay illustrated his fears. The well had been shut down by BP’s own inspectors for dangerously high pressures at the wellhead, but was restarted without proper testing. Six hours later the well exploded, hurling a worker 50 feet in the air and leaving him with broken bones and severe burns. This was not an isolated event. In April of 2001, a corroded pipeline in ConocoPhillips’s Kuparuk field spewed 92,400 gallons of “produced water,” a highly toxic cocktail of crude oil and salt water, over the ice and snow; the spill was controlled in 12 minutes, but not before it damaged two acres of tundra. Burkett still supports drilling in ANWR—but this pattern of weak oversight and bottom-line economics has led him to the conclusion that oil companies can’t be trusted to police themselves.
Strange as it sounds, that’s basically what they do. The Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, and, on the state level, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) regulate oil production under a policy of voluntary disclosure. Companies are obligated to report environmental incidents, and face periodic inspections by the EPA, ADEC, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and several other agencies, many of these visits scheduled in advance. And as oil revenues have declined, so has Alaska’s state budget—15 percent since the early 1990s, with ADEC taking a 49 percent hit.
The result, states a 2003 Wilderness Society report, is “a clear record of broken promises.” They point to more than 400 spills per year since 1996, totaling 1.7 million gallons, and cite extensive development around the supposedly pristine Alpine field.
In the end, analyzing industry behavior is no easy business. The mistakes of the Valdez and Endicott Island have led to positive changes, but perfection, the oil companies argue, is impossible. The main issue is that overall, the industry now has the capability to tap more field with less impact and, if required, can do so. Its record of operations on the North Slope is, by world and historical standards, impressive. Zero rig blowouts and zero major spills (classified by ADEC as 100,000 gallons or more) since the Valdez is no small accomplishment, and while no one wants to see many minor spills totaling 1.7 million gallons, this still does not have the impact of a single spill of the same amount. It all comes down to how you define acceptable risk.
So long as reduced-impact drilling is cost-effective, I’d contend that oil companies can be trusted to operate cleanly. But economics and the environment aren’t always in line. As the field ages, you enter the gray zone of risk management. And in that gray world, no one should be trusted—not Big Oil, not the government. When no two people can agree on how much risk is acceptable, some reliable system of checks and balances is critical, or the result is a quagmire of trade-offs in a land where one man’s wasteland is another man’s wilderness.
Nowhere are those trade-offs more apparent than among native Alaskans, who, after the discovery of oil on the North Slope in 1967, used federal courts to force passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The act established 13 regional and 168 village corporations, which took legal title to surface land and subsurface mineral rights in exchange for relinquishing aboriginal claims on lands along the right-of-way of the new Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Now, in the Inupiat villages of Kaktovik and Nuiqsut, which lie equidistant from Prudhoe Bay in opposite directions, that legacy is strikingly different. Nuiqsut has oil development on its front porch—ConocoPhillips’s Alpine field lies inside Nuiqsut village corporation lands—while Kaktovik wants it in its backyard: Its own 92,000 acres, the KIC lands, lie entirely inside the 1002.
I flew into Kaktovik on the day of the first sunset of summer. Sixty miles inside the western boundary of the 1002, Kaktovik sits on the heart-shaped hump of Barter Island, where life seems far removed from oil fields and federal courts. The yards around the small wood-frame houses were cluttered with fishing and hunting gear, ATVs, and snowmobiles left quiet for the summer. At the post office, people asked expectantly about catalog shipments or mail or checks. When the postmaster asked one guy, a heavy-equipment operator, what he needed, he stabbed his finger toward the south: “We need about four oil rigs right out there.” For Kaktovik, drilling means jobs, royalties, and the continuation of a way of life that, for many, is the only one they know. Subsistence activities remain a huge part of Kaktovik culture, but oil money comes in the form of seasonal jobs in the oil fields and tax revenues to the North Slope Borough, the largest of Alaska’s 27 political divisions. Further moneys come via dividends from the statewide Alaska Permanent Fund and the native Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. A diversified company with 3,000 employees and annual revenues in the $1 billion range, the ASRC holds title to roughly five million acres of land in the name of its 9,000 Inupiat shareholders, including subsurface rights to Kaktovik’s lands, where the KIC well was drilled, then plugged and capped, in 1986.
It’s the stuff of legend—not even locals know how much, if any, oil was found under their land. Only select corporate officers at Chevron, BP, and the ASRC know, and in the early 1990s they went to court to defend their secret—proprietary information, they said, drilled on private land with private money. The irony remains poignant in Kaktovik: Under ANILCA, the Inupiat can’t drill anyway, not until Congress acts. It’s like owning a car that’s illegal to drive. So Kaktovik waits, a lifeline of cash trickling down from the borough seat at Barrow, a relative metropolis of 5,000.
“Kaktovik is always last,” said Lon Sonsalla, 50, a Wisconsin native who moved here in the 1970s and has served as the town’s mayor for seven of the last eight years. Like most people in the village, he favors drilling the 1002. Without it, he said, the future is grim: limited education, limited facilities. With it comes money for schools and health care, not to mention one important by-product of oil-field development: natural gas to heat homes.
The village of Nuiqsut has these things. But with drilling have come problems. With jobs and direct royalties from the Alpine oil field, Nuiqsut has more money, but also more crime, fourfold that of Kaktovik: alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence. As in every other North Slope native village, save Barrow, possession of alcohol is illegal in Nuiqsut, but there’s a black market in booze and drugs smuggled in on the winter ice road. In Nuiqsut, I was told, “you can get anything.”
It’s the example of Nuiqsut that has spurred the Gwich’in tribe to push against opening the 1002. Spread out over the southern slopes of the Brooks Range, the Gwich’in derive 75 percent of their diet from the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates past the settlement of Arctic Village in a bow-shaped path between the Brooks Range and calving areas in and around the 1002.
“The Gwich’in are presented as a traditional tribe that refused to sell out to oil,” said ASRC board chairman Oliver Leavitt, who, along with the Inupiat corporation’s president and CEO, Jacob Adams, is one of the most powerful native Alaskans in the state. “But the fact is that they invited companies to survey their historic lands, and those surveys showed they had no oil. I’m not saying that makes them bad people, but some characterizations are not accurate. They call themselves Ôpeople of the caribou,’ but Inupiat are also people of the caribou.”
Luci Beach, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, acknowledged that the Gwich’in had invited oil surveyors in the 1970s but said that the areas were not critical habitat, and at any rate the elders had voted to halt exploration. “We are realists,” she said. “We know this [oil] is something we use, too, but where subsistence lifestyles are endangered, we oppose development.”
The scientific debate over caribou in the 1002 is by no means resolved. Populations in the Central Arctic herd—a 31,800-member herd that calves around Prudhoe Bay—have remained strong despite oil development, and caribou there continue to use the oil field extensively during the post-calving period. But studies also show that females shy away from the noise of oil fields during calving. This could pose problems for the Porcupine herd, which is four times larger than the Central Arctic herd but calves in an area one-fifth the size. Of course, even this is a vast oversimplification: On average, 50 percent of the herd calves in the 1002, but in some years, none of it does.
“When the oil companies first came,” said Leavitt, “we felt as the Gwich’in do now—that the animals would leave. But we were wrong. I don’t believe the caribou will leave, and if I did, I would not be in favor of drilling the coastal plain.”
It’s a sentiment echoed all over Kaktovik. While the ASRC’s revenue may make the Inupiat seem wealthy, the reality is that their land, and the profits they can get from it, is all they have. The Inupiat are well aware of the problems—that more cash equals more alcohol and more drugs. They know that oil will one day run out and the companies will pack up their equipment, and their jobs, and fly south. But they believe that the 30 years it will likely take to drill the 1002 will provide an invaluable economic transition. “There is no going back,” said ASRC vice president Richard Glenn. “Back to what? We can’t pretend the world isn’t what it is.”
WHY—AND HOW—WE SHOULD DRILL
None of us can pretend that. So the issue becomes how to manage an energy transition that everybody agrees is under way. Sometime soon—by midcentury, perhaps—oil will cease to be a fossil fuel and become merely a fossil, but exactly when depends on how soon we can make the switch to alternative sources of energy.
That’s a long way off, according to Justin Stiefel, chief of staff and energy policy analyst for Alaska’s junior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski. “I’m not against developing alternatives,” said Stiefel. “We’re going to need energy from every source we can get. But no matter how you slice it, fossil fuels are going to have to be part of that mix, and ANWR is the best domestic source to help do that.”
According to projections by the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Energy Agency, and the World Energy Council—take your pick—fossil fuels will account for around 75 percent of world energy use in 2020, with renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and crop-based ethanol contributing only about 4 percent, and the remaining 21 percent coming from nuclear, hydropower, and traditional wood, crop, and animal-waste fuels. Even in best-case scenarios, if government policy suddenly pushed us away from fossil fuels, the WEC estimates that renewables will supply only 12 percent of world energy needs by that date.
Environmental groups point out that ANWR oil isn’t going to make or break any of this—it’s simply one field, a six-month supply to gas-guzzling Americans. But that assumes that ANWR oil would be the only source of energy used, a logic that, if applied elsewhere, suggests we’d burn through the Prudhoe Bay field, the largest in North America and in operation since 1977, in two and a half years. According to the United States Geological Survey, there are between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels under the 1002. At the current market price of $30 a barrel, the USGS estimates that 6.3 billion of those barrels are economically recoverable, compared with 5.6 billion in the NPRA, an area 16 times as large. That’s a significant field by any reasonable measure.
Drilling opponents are right about American consumption, however: Conservation could save more energy than ANWR will ever provide. We can’t produce our way out of dependence on foreign oil, and a comprehensive strategy for alternatives seems necessary if not inevitable. The Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, and Greenpeace all argue that conservation is the cheapest and fastest way to make up for ANWR crude, and the National Resources Defense Council points out that the hype about hydrogen cells misses the mark, since the technology already exists to make 40-mile-per-gallon SUVs. But the two easiest ways to conserve fuel are to drive smaller cars and drive them more slowly, choices that have been available to the American consumer for a long time.
Free-market advocates like Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, contend that Americans aren’t willing to make the economic trade-off, not as long as gas is, when adjusted for inflation, less expensive than in 1955. Significant conservation won’t happen, Taylor insists, until oil prices go up. His answer is to leave it to the market, letting private enterprise exploit new technologies as their prices become more competitive. “While it’s conceivable that the developed world could, at great economic cost, shift rapidly away from fossil fuels,” Taylor said, “there’s simply no way that the rest of the world can do it without being consigned to a state of rank poverty.”
In Kaktovik, such a risk is evident every day. ANWR oil might not be necessary to us, but it may be to the Inupiat—30 years of jobs and royalties are a hard thing to ignore. But so are the Gwich’in claims to their hunting grounds, and it strikes me as only reasonable to try to protect both.
In Kaktovik, I sat in a simple hotel room before a sunny midnight sky, staring at the polar ice pack, a sheaf of reports spread out before me. I found myself taking maps of the 1002 calving grounds compiled by Alaska Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and superimposing them over USGS estimates of oil distribution. It made for an illuminating picture. From 1983 to 2001, radio-collared female caribou concentrated like a shotgun blast in the south-central region of the 1002, with few calving in the northwestern third. According to the USGS, the bulk of the 1002 oil—as much as 85 percent—also lies in the northwestern third, above a formation called the Marsh Creek anticline, which divides the 1002 into two zones, the “undeformed” and the “deformed.” The undeformed zone stretches north toward the Canning River delta—which could supply water for ice roads. It’s also close to current oil development—which would limit infrastructure to a much greater degree than development in, say, the far reaches of the NPRA.
In March 2002, the USGS released five projections of oil drilling’s impact on caribou in the 1002. The first involved development of the entire area and showed that 82.4 percent of calves would be displaced, by an average of 32 miles. But two other projections showed significantly less impact. One that included development of the undeformed zone as well as the KIC lands showed that only 35 percent would be displaced, and only by an average of three miles. According to wildlife biologists, those 29 miles could be the difference between irreparable harm to the herd and its long-term ability to adapt.
It’s time to stop thinking of the 1002 as a monolith and to recognize that the political and geological assumptions that informed ANILCA are not the realities of today. Opening the undeformed zone and the KIC lands while declaring the rest of the 1002 a wilderness area makes sense on many levels, but mostly on a human level. It strikes me as a monumental injustice to allow development that would debilitate the Porcupine herd and the livelihood of the Gwich’in. At the same time, change has been wrought on the Inupiat through little choice of their own. It is equally unjust to agree to land settlements, only to revoke a people’s ability to do with those lands what they please.
Compromise is never easy. And I suggest this one with a huge caveat: The public has a right to police this development. If the oil industry wants ANWR, the developers have to earn the public trust. The only way to do that is to open themselves to a new form of oversight, and not by the government. Rightly or wrongly, regulation tends to cause adversarialism—a feeling I know all too well. It leads to circumvention if not outright corruption. Substantial oversight should come from those who know the most and have the most at stake: environmental groups, scientists, and native Alaskans.
NOBODY SEES THE GRAY
The Arctic is a hard place to shake. On my last flight over the 1002, I rode in a Cessna 206 that dipped and banked over twisting strands of the Jago River, curling toward the lone marker of the KIC well, now nothing more than a rusted standpipe, six feet tall and held in place by a round base of concrete. From the air it was thin and easy to miss, a lone pin in an immense pincushion, the tundra stretching to the south like a green-brown pillow, backdropped by the snowed escarpments of the Sadlerochits and the Brooks Range. I could still see the faded outline where the rig once stood on temporary wooden blocks now 17 years gone. Seventeen years and the evidence was still there, an angular outline on the tundra.
The plane leveled off and turned back west, and I looked in all directions, still thirsty for the place, the symbol and fact of the coastal plain, where, despite the rhetoric of debate, the truth is, there’s no white but the ice and no black but the oil. All else comes in shades of gray, sweeping wide and flat for a hundred miles.