The Slippery North Slope
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. camps in the Arctic and asks why big oil can't keep its hands off America's largest patch of wilderness
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Just north of the Arctic Circle on the coast of Alaska, there's a lush fairway of liquid emerald tundra upon which 129,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd converge during the early part of summer to feast on succulent cotton grass, nurse their young, and escape airborne armadas of mosquitoes by dipping into the frigid waters of the Beaufort Sea. If the timing's right, this is one of the most magnificent wildlife spectacles on earth. Regrettably, however, we're here during the last week in July. And while not a single caribou is anywhere to be seen, the skeeters are everywhere. Right now, in fact, a cloud of them is zeroing in on a ridge where, poised before a CBS television crew, gazing with hooded blue eyes toward the ice-studded sea, and smearing his hand over an angry stain created by a bottle of deet that exploded in the pocket of his pants, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is offering up an impassioned paean to this patch of paradise.
“This is the largest pristine wilderness in North America,” Kennedy croaks in a froggy quaver. “And it enriches us all because nature is the way that God communicates with us most forcefully—”
“Here we can see the Creator's richness, not only in this giant expanse of wetlands, but also in the mosquito population—”
“Yet oil companies want to treat this land as if it were a business to be liquidated. If we allow them to destroy this place, then all of humanity will be diminished, because—”
Kennedy's on a roll, but his soliloquy will have to wait until the wind picks up and the bugs subside. John Blackstone, the CBS correspondent, sighs with relief and mashes a mosquito net over his head. Pamela Miller, who runs VIP trips to Alaska's North Slope, spritzes her hair with another layer of deet. As we hike back to our camp, four miles up the Aichilik River, Kennedy turns to his 15-year-old son Bobby, who isn't looking too jazzed about having joined his father's latest adventure-travel-cum-environmental-activism vacation. “Now I see why the caribou jump in the ocean and freeze their asses off with big smiles on their faces,” the elder Kennedy quips. “If people see this, they're gonna say, 'Go ahead and give this place to the oil companies.'”
The place he's talking about is the most ecologically significant, biologically diverse, and politically contentious slice of Alaska's 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In 1980, Congress ratified legislation to protect eight million acres of the Refuge as wilderness, but the coastal plain we've been camping on for the last two days, designated the “1002 Area,” makes up about an eighth of the 11.6 million acres that remain vulnerable to development. This is in spite of the fact that the 1002 Area is America's premier summer sanctuary for virtually every major form of Arctic wildlife—musk oxen, grizzlies, wolves, golden eagles, and caribou, as well as 135 species of birds. It is also coveted by several petroleum companies currently drilling in Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles to the west, because it sits on an estimated 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable crude oil. That's enough to cover the U.S.'s energy needs for about six months.
After hanging in limbo for 20 years, the fate of this teeming chunk of permafrost known as the American Serengeti may finally be decided on November 7. While rumors shoot through Washington that Bill Clinton might declare the 1002 Area a National Monument just after the presidential election, Alaska's industry-friendly congressional delegation is scrambling to exploit public alarm over the summer's spiking gas prices to push the opposite agenda. Since last March, GOP legislators have introduced three bills to open this part of the Refuge to drilling, and its future now hinges on who will win the White House. Al Gore has vowed to protect the 1002 Area; George W. Bush favors an infusion of rigs, airfields, and a pipeline grid that could eventually crisscross the entire coastal strip.
“Now I see why the caribou jump in the ocean and freeze their asses off with big smiles on their faces,” the elder Kennedy quips. “If people see this, they're gonna say, 'Go ahead and give this place to the oil companies.'”
All of which is why the 46-year-old Kennedy, the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a whitewater buff (he's participated in first descents on a half-dozen rivers in the Americas), is now parked alongside the Aichilik River. He's here practicing what he likes to call “adventure activism,” a barnstorming tactic he's previously used to great effect in several high-profile environmental battles, including a successful bid to stop a dam project in Quebec in 1988, and a drive earlier this year to block a Mitsubishi salt plant that many feared would destroy a gray-whale nursery near Baja, California.
Adventure, of course, is what you make of it. The morning after our hike up the ridge, Kennedy plunges into the bone-numbing river, treats himself to a shampoo-and-rinse, then lathers up for a shave while the rest of us break camp to prepare for Phase Two of our North Slope tour: Prudhoe Bay. When fog delays the bush plane for several hours, forcing us to wait in a chilly wind, Kennedy remedies the situation by drenching his topo maps in white gas and using them to ignite a pile of driftwood. After the plane arrives, we fly over the watery green plain, skimming above rivers of burnished silver and snowy flocks of tundra swan. Once again, there's not a caribou in sight—until we land in Prudhoe Bay, where our pilot must turn to avoid colliding with three bulls out for a stroll across the tarmac.
Despite this titillating wildlife moment, the North Slope oil patch is a brutal contrast to the wilderness we've left behind. Its 19 fields, 3,900 wells (which pump a million barrels a day), and hundreds of waste pits sprawl across some 8,500 square miles. Waiting to squire us through a small section of this mammoth fuel depot are two top-notch flacks: British Petroleum's Ronnie Chappell, who started his PR career with Arco in January 1989 (two months before the Exxon Valdez spill), and Bill Van Dyke, a spinmeister at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Kennedy has barely hopped aboard the shuttle bus when Van Dyke starts pelting him with statistics on how well the caribou herd around Prudhoe Bay is doing. Chappell and Van Dyke clearly feel that this is an important issue, presumably because environmentalists worry that drilling in the 1002 Area could disrupt the Porcupine herd's calving season. “Hey,” Van Dyke exclaims. “There's two caribou right out there! It's kinda my job to point out every single one.” He explains that the herd around Prudhoe Bay has increased threefold since drilling began in the 1970s—a boom that, Van Dyke does not mention, occurred largely because oil workers killed off or drove away most of the local predators. “There's another one!” Van Dyke shouts. In the back of the bus, John Blackstone from CBS has momentarily dozed off.
We take a gravel causeway out to a drilling platform called Endicott. While we stare up at a 150-foot derrick, all three million pounds of it, Chappell explains how hard British Petroleum strives to protect the environment by using temporary ice roads and employing sophisticated angular-drilling technologies, which reduce the number of drill pads in a given area. This is all true; but so too is the fact that last February BP was convicted of failing to inform the EPA in a timely manner that one of its contractors had dumped hazardous waste down Endicott's well holes for three straight years. For this offense, Chappell's company was forced to pay $22 million in fines, and will spend five years on probation.
Eventually, we're ushered into Endicott's offices, where talk turns to the question of who actually worries about the Refuge. “It is my understanding that there's only a small core of Americans who care deeply about ANWR,” intones Chappell, citing a poll conducted by Arctic Power, an industry group that lobbies for drilling in the 1002 Area. (BP last year contributed $50,000 to Arctic Power, and the organization's board includes a BP official.) “Most of them don't even know about it.”
Tossing a chart onto an overhead projector, Van Dyke begins raving about the added cash that will flow into the state if the Refuge is opened up to drilling. This is another key issue. Oil revenues supply up to 85 percent of Alaska's yearly income. Without it, Alaskans would have to pay state taxes like most folks in the Lower 48—a burden so onerous, Van Dyke says, “that it'd force people to move out of the state.”
The North Slope oil patch is a brutal contrast to the wilderness we've left behind. Its 19 fields, 3,900 wells (which pump a million barrels a day), and hundreds of waste pits sprawl across some 8,500 square miles.
After listening to this spiel, Kennedy says he'd like a chance to respond. His theme: the absurdity of breaking into a wildlife sanctuary to tap a six-month supply of oil. “Wilderness holds Americans together as a people; it defines us as a people,” he declares. “If we treat it with contempt and destroy it for a few barrels of oil, what we're really saying is that the only thing that defines us is money. What we should be doing is encouraging people to conserve energy. It'll give us a lot more oil, a lot cheaper, without the environmental problems, rather than just feeding an addiction by destroying something we value.”
Chappell offers a tepid smile. “We're not opposed to conservation,” he replies. “But the product we make is vital to all Americans.” Van Dyke chuckles and asks if we might like to take some lapel pins home with us. It's time to go.
As the shuttle returns to the airport, where a jet is waiting to whisk us to Fairbanks, the tundra is bathed in a luminous silver-and-green glow that only the endless twilight of an Arctic midsummer night can achieve. We pass by immense fleets of machinery and miles of pipeline. After our two nights next to the Aichilik, the scene seems unnatural and depressingly blunt. Chappell leans over my shoulder. “Now remember,” he drawls, “we can go into environmentally sensitive areas in a way that doesn't have a negative impact on wildlife. A development out there wouldn't look like this. It'd be dictated by—”
Chappell, it would seem, is about to uncork the secret behind eco-perfect oil exploration, undoubtedly by reinvoking the miracles of ice roads and angular drilling. But he's suddenly thrown off his game. “Hey, Ronnie,” Kennedy interrupts. “You guys must get some pretty good views of the northern lights up here, eh? You know, the kinda thing where it looks like somebody's pulled a zipper open across the heavens and the stars are just spilling out on top of you?”
For the first time all day, Chappell's face is animated by a policy-free enthusiasm. “Oh yeah!” he says. “Sometimes they hang so low that it feels like you can actually reach up and grab them right out of the sky.” He pauses, gazing at the pipelines next to the bus. “It's truly an amazing thing.”