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The Specter Haunting Alaska

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska: Coastal Plain Resource Assessment

Department of the Interior
April 1987

Economics of Undiscovered Oil in the Federal Lands of the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska

by Emil D. Attanasi
United States Geological Survey, Open-File Report 03-044, 2003


By most definitions, the word “Arctic” refers to the region near the North Pole. Only one section of it lies within the United States: the part of Alaska north of the Brooks mountain range known as the North Slope (see the map above). The North Slope is huge—89,000 square miles, slightly larger than the state of Minnesota—but in many ways it’s a world apart, even from the rest of Alaska. The Brooks Range effectively forms Alaska’s tree line—the latitude beyond which trees do not grow—and its rivers drain northward down onto a vast tundra plain dominated by a cotton grass that is the favorite food of the millions of caribou that migrate to the region during the summer months.

Underneath the tundra is the “active layer,” a coat of peaty, semi-decomposed organic matter that passes for soil. Less than a foot below lies a thick layer of permanently frozen earth—permafrost—that in places is half a mile deep. This permafrost is a relic of the last ice age when the sea level was three hundred feet lower than it is now. The North Slope was then a part of Beringia, the wide land bridge that connected North America and Siberia. Even today, the raging spring rivers of the North Slope expose ice-age mammoth tusks long buried in gravel banks. During the last ice age, the region was more part of Asia than it was part of North America.

One of the curiosities of the North Slope is that even though it receives only between five and eight inches of rain a year (similar to some deserts in the Southwest), the underlying permafrost can’t be penetrated by water and the surface remains constantly saturated. When I visited the North Slope in June with William Weber, director of the North American Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Steve Zack, an ornithologist and director of the conservation society’s Northwest office, the ice had just broken up, and Zack continually (and only half jokingly) referred to the pervasive marshes, bogs, and thaw ponds as “Pleistocene water.” We were at the headwaters of the Nigu River, in a valley on the north-facing slopes of the Brooks Range that an outfitter later told us was the most remote part of all Alaska. In the twenty-four-hour sunlight, the snow pack around us was melting off the mountainsides, and water was pouring from the tundra. The caribou herds were returning from their forest wintering grounds closely trailed by predatory wolves and grizzlies. The earth around us was aflame with stands of fireweed, wild lupines, and miniature rhododendrons.

The Nigu flows eventually into the Colville, the North Slope’s largest river and one that flows in turn through what is known as the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska. At twenty-three and a half million acres, the NPR-A (as it’s known) is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States and, despite its unprepossessing name, it was the NPR-A we had come to visit.

The National Petroleum Reserve was established during the early 1920s when the Harding administration was converting the ships of the United States Navy from coal to oil. Nineteenth-century Yankee whalers had observed oil pools on the tundra surface and, in 1924, the entire tract was set aside as Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4 against the possibility of future oil shortages. Shortly thereafter, major deposits of oil were discovered in Oklahoma and Texas and the reserve was forgotten and left in its primeval state.

Several thousand Inupiat Eskimos live along the shores of the Beaufort Sea on the region’s north coast. The Inupiat point out that for thousands of years they have used the petroleum reserve as a hunting ground—but the reserve is nevertheless about as wild a place as you’re likely to find in the United States. It’s both larger than the 19 million acres of its federally administered cousin, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—which lies further east, where the North Slope abuts the Canadian border—and some would argue more valuable ecologically. Its wide coastal plain supports several huge caribou herds—including the half-million caribou of the Western Arctic herd—and its coastal complex of tundra wetlands, lakes, and ponds is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important for shorebirds and waterfowl in the Arctic.

This is particularly true of the Teshekpuk Lake area, where many thousands of birds, including spectacled eiders, yellow-billed loons, snow geese, Pacific black brant, and tundra swans, all nest and in some cases take advantage of the area’s remoteness to molt. Birds from six continents migrate thousands of miles to the Teshekpuk area to breed and raise their young amid the seasonal plenty of the Arctic summer. Dunlins come from Asia; red-necked phalaropes from Chile; arctic terns from Antarctica; and bar-tailed godwits from New Zealand. “That’s what’s so exciting about the Arctic,” Zack explained to me. “Choose a region of the world and I can find an arctic-breeding bird that lives there.”

Until 1968, most of the North Slope—like the National Petroleum Reserve—was more or less wild. But petroleum geologists had long been aware that underneath large sections of the North Slope was an ancient, submerged seabed whose algae and plankton had been cooked over the millennia into the kind of formation considered likely to be oil-bearing. Of particular interest was the so-called Barrow Arch, a belt of submerged composite rock which serves as a trap for accumulations of oil underneath. The arch runs more or less parallel to the coast of the Beaufort Sea, starting in the west near the ancient Inupiat Eskimo city of Barrow, and running east to a point where—a hundred-plus miles short of the Canadian Yukon—the rock dives deeper underground and disappears just shy of what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This refuge was initially created in Alaska in 1960 during the waning months of the Eisenhower administration with the intent of preserving a part of the Alaska wilderness that was of great ecological value. In the wildlife refuge, the coastal tundra plain narrows and the nine-thousand-foot peaks of the Brooks Range seem to rise almost out of the sea. Grizzly and polar bears, wolves, and caribou all abound, and the refuge was turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, with the intent of protecting its animal life. Its boundaries were laid out by a distinguished company that included not just the two famous naturalists Olaus and Mardy Murie, but also Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and George Schaller, then a young graduate student already affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The wildlife refuge is a stunningly beautiful place, and many of its admirers have attributed to it quasi-religious qualities. Olaus Murie, according to Jonathan Waterman’s book Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, repeatedly emphasized its “precious intangible values” and how the experience of wilderness which it afforded should be “a democratic guarantee.” Schaller, according to Waterman, argued that the silence of the landscape “dispelled the unease that accompanied city life.”

But there was another reason for the location of the wildlife refuge: the oil industry considered it safely beyond the end of the Barrow Arch and therefore unlikely to sit on any oil. Alaska had become a state only the year before—on January 3, 1959—and the refuge was laid out during the early stages of an intense period of negotiation over land rights between the federal government and Alaskan representatives. An early participant in this process was Ted Stevens, now a six-term senator second in seniority only to Robert Byrd. Stevens was largely responsible for a swap by which the refuge would be preserved and the oil companies would be able to develop a geologically promising section of the Barrow Arch, known as Prudhoe Bay, in the middle of the North Slope coastline.

In 1968, a partnership of Atlantic Richfield and Humble Oil struck oil on land near Prudhoe Bay—not just a small amount of oil, but what eventually proved to be the largest oil field ever discovered in the US. The timing proved fortuitous for the oil industry. In 1973, by the time the issue came to a head, the nation was facing the first OPEC oil embargo. American dependence on “foreign oil” became a burning political issue and Prudhoe Bay oil seemed to be the patriotic, America-first solution. This was not the view of environmentalists, who were strongly opposed to the eight-hundred-mile pipeline that the oil companies proposed to carry the Prudhoe Bay oil to the port of Valdez in southern Alaska. When the legislation came before the Senate, Vice President Spiro Agnew had to step in to break a tie vote. Drilling for oil had begun.

In the years since, the oil from Prudhoe Bay and its associated fields has become a major force in modern Alaskan life. With oil revenues derived from Prudhoe Bay, the state has managed to live what seems, on the surface, a free-market, small-government dream. It has kept state taxes low and set up a permanent fund that disperses annual dividends that have risen as high as $2,000 per citizen (although they’ve since dropped to around $900). But out of sight of most Alaskans, the damage to the North Slope has been enormous. Prudhoe Bay, which started in 1968 as a single oil field, has since sprawled to cover a thousand square miles in the center of the North Slope—an area almost the size of Rhode Island—and has come to be widely referred to as “the largest industrial development in the world.” In 2003, the National Research Council published Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope, a congressionally commissioned report compiled by eighteen prominent Arctic experts. It concluded that the oil fields had

substantially affected many of the wildland qualities of the region. The associated roads, pads, pipelines, seismic vehicle tracks, transmission lines, air, ground, and vessel traffic, drilling activities, landfill, housing, processing facilities, and other industrial infrastructure have reduced opportunities for solitude; displaced animals; altered ecological processes; compromised scenic values; and resulted in noise and air emissions.

Among other developments at Prudhoe Bay, the report listed almost six hundred miles of roads, sixteen airstrips, two hundred miles of transmission lines, twenty offshore gravel islands connected to the shore by causeways, twenty-four open-pit gravel mines, five hundred miles of pipeline and more than a hundred drilling “pads,” or sites, and almost a hundred more exploratory pads. The study also noted innumerable small oil spills and the annual emission of 70,000 metric tons of nitrogen oxides. The committee quoted native hunters who complained of sores and lesions on fish, moose, and caribou. They said that caribou meat had a different taste now, that respiratory diseases had increased in their villages, and that seal skins had become thinner—almost to the point of being translucent.

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