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The Specter Haunting Alaska

Between 1977 and 1987, the Prudhoe Bay wells grew to provide two million barrels a day—approximately 20 percent of US production. But what has been little commented on outside the industry is that in recent years Prudhoe Bay’s yield has begun to trail off and is now half of what it once was. This, in turn, has set off a scramble for new sources of North Slope oil and led the industry to look both east toward the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and west toward the National Petroleum Reserve. It so happens that in an era of great scarcity, these two pieces of federal land are generally considered the best prospects for onshore oil anywhere in the United States. The pressure to lease them to energy companies has been tremendous and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has only increased. But so too has the resistance of environmentalists—especially in the case of the wildlife refuge.


The effort to protect the refuge has a long history in Alaska. Richard Fineberg, a Fairbanks oil analyst, explained to me that at around the same time as the Prudhoe Bay discoveries, oil geologists became aware of another potential oil-bearing rock formation that extended under the refuge’s coastal plain. “It was,” as Fineberg put it, “a dagger pointed at the heart of ANWR.” In 1980, during the Carter administration, the wildlife refuge almost doubled in size. But Congress recognized the possibility of oil beneath the wildlife refuge’s coastal plain, and thus Section 1002 of the legislation that created the expanded reserve left open half of its coastal plain—1.5 million acres—to be evaluated for its oil deposits and subsequently disposed of by Congress. The Interior Department was given responsibility for making the evaluation.

In 1987, the Interior Department filed its report, which considered five options for dealing with what had become known as the “1002 Area” of the plain. These options ranged from designating it a wilderness to opening it entirely to oil and gas development. The last choice, the report warned, would mean that “the wilderness value of the coastal plain would be eliminated.” The report went on to spell out the ways in which full development would damage not just the area’s wildlife—including wolves, musk oxen, and polar bears—but also “accelerate the rate of change in Native culture” and “reduce subsistence hunting opportunities.” Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior, Donald Hodel, nevertheless chose full development, arguing that it “best met the nation’s goals and responsibilities.”

In any case, the dispute was rendered moot by the disaster of March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez, a tanker carrying 53 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay oil, breached on a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude not far from Valdez, the southern terminal of the Prudhoe Bay pipeline, where it had taken on its oil cargo. The spill took a fearsome toll on Alaska’s wildlife and led to the withdrawal of legislation to open the wildlife refuge to drilling. As Waterman writes, it tarred thirteen hundred miles of coastline and killed millions of mature fish and billions of juveniles. Half a million birds died, including 250 bald eagles—so did, among many other creatures, almost three thousand sea otters, three hundred seals, and twenty-two orcas.

The recent, renewed campaign to drill in the wildlife refuge draws on a 1998 United States Geological Survey study which gave a mean value estimate of 10.4 billion “technically recoverable” barrels of oil in the expanded reserve region. Vice President Cheney’s May 2001 National Energy Policy report—the best guide we have to the administration’s energy policy—refers to oil in the wildlife refuge as “the single most promising prospect in the United States.” It claims that at peak production the refuge “could produce as much as 1.3 million barrels a day and account for more than twenty percent of all US oil production.” Cheney’s assessment ends with the famous assertion that, given recent technological improvements that have

dramatically reduced the industry’s impact on the tundra…estimates indicate that no more than two-thousand acres will be disturbed if the 1002 Area of ANWR is developed…an area less than one-fifth the size of Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport.

The administration’s proposal to drill in the wildlife refuge is currently buried in a revenue provision of the budget bill, where by law it cannot be filibustered. It has provoked intense opposition. Critics point out that the claim that the oil development of the 1002 Area will affect only two thousand acres is based on the disingenuous argument that only the actual posts and building pads on which the drilling structures are erected would count as a disturbance, not the roads or pipelines or other facilities that would be built above the tundra. They argue, moreover, that Cheney’s assurance that not more than two thousand acres would be disturbed is predicated on the notion that whatever oil might lie beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is concentrated in a single small area. In fact, the Geological Survey specifically predicts that the oil in the wildlife refuge is “expected to occur as several accumulations rather than a single large accumulation.” Extracting this oil would therefore require an extension of the web of roads and pipelines that already cover the one thousand square miles of the adjacent lands of Prudhoe Bay.

Cheney’s figures about the oil in the refuge are also misleading. The Energy Information Administration, the statistical agency of the Department of Energy, estimates that, at its peak, the production there could amount to 940,000 barrels a day, not 1.3 million. Even if leasing of drilling rights in the refuge’s oil fields were to begin right away, moreover, the peak of production Cheney refers to wouldn’t be reached until 2025. At that point, the percentage of US oil consumption that the wildlife refuge might provide is perhaps a more relevant consideration than the percentage of production. The United States currently imports close to 60 percent of its oil. By 2025, that figure is expected to rise to 70 percent. At that point the refuge’s oil wells would be contributing just 4 percent of US consumption. This is not an insignificant amount but it also suggests that if the wildlife refuge is our leading onshore oil prospect, we’d be well advised to start looking for some other solution to our energy needs.

Some argue, moreover, that the administration’s intense emphasis on drilling in the refuge may be a deliberate deception. For many environmentalists, the refuge is an ideal, pure wilderness. In his book, Jonathan Waterman refers to the wildlife refuge as a “Garden” and “our last natural paradise.” Those who question the administration’s motives have speculated that the controversy over drilling in the refuge has been manipulated as a distraction from more significant but less emotional issues such as the pressing need to raise the fuel-consumption standards for vehicles. It may also divert attention from the administration’s efforts to undermine the moratorium on drilling in federal coastal waters. (The leases for much of the Alaska state lands in the Beaufort Sea off the North Slope were recently awarded to Shell.)

In a much-read New York Times article last February, Jeff Gerth argued that the oil companies themselves might not be all that much interested in drilling in the refuge. Only one test drill has ever been made, and that was the so-called KIC Well, driven in the early 1980s by a partnership between a Native American corporation and Chevron, Texaco, and BP. The results have been a tightly held secret ever since, but several oil companies have recently pulled out of an industry lobbying organization promoting drilling in the refuge. An executive from one of the KIC Well partners, speaking anonymously to Gerth, told him that if the results had become more promising, the company would have been more involved in the political effort to open the refuge.

Nationally, the controversy over whether to lease the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been extremely high-pitched, but among environmentalists the fate of the National Petroleum Reserve has been almost as deep a concern. It is, after all, a larger piece of land and all of it, not part of it, may soon be opened to leasing. A 2003 report from the Geological Survey gave a mean figure estimate for the petroleum reserve of 9.5 billion barrels of “technically recoverable” oil. Although this translated in most analysts’ minds into a few billion barrels of likely oil, it was still an amount only slightly smaller than the amount of the estimate for the refuge. As the Christian Science Monitor recently noted, it made the National Petroleum Reserve, “after ANWR, the biggest source of oil on federal lands anywhere in the United States.”

Both the wildlife refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve now belong to the Interior Department, but unlike the refuge, which is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the petroleum reserve was transferred in 1977—during the Ford administration—to the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Interior Department that is primarily concerned with the exploitation of gas and oil, as well as mining, logging, and grazing rights. The intent of the Ford administration was for the bureau to hold it against the possibility of some future oil shortage. Environmentalists, including Representatives John Anderson and Stuart Udall, had argued that the reserve should be given to the Fish and Wildlife Service, in which case it would have been named the Teshekpuk-Utotok Wildlife Reserve; but the Bureau of Land Management prevailed and the environmentalists could only extract the concession that, whatever the future disposition of the petroleum reserve, “maximum protection” would be granted to a number of “special areas” of outstanding ecological importance. These included the Colville River (because its bluffs support one of the highest concentrations of nesting raptors on earth) and the Teshekpuk Lake tundra-marsh complex. Teshekpuk is not only one of the most important migratory bird regions in the Arctic, but also the calving ground of the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

The 2003 Geological Survey report showed, however, that the best prospects for oil were concentrated at the point where the Barrow Arch ran under Teshekpuk Lake. Just what “maximum protection” the special areas would receive had never been spelled out. In 1999, Bruce Babbitt, Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior, brokered a deal whereby 87 percent of the northeast section of the National Petroleum Reserve would be opened for leasing while the balance—some 800,000 acres of the most ecologically delicate areas (mostly around Teshekpuk)—were set aside as a wildlife preserve. The solution was not to everyone’s liking but, as John Schoen, the Audubon Society’s chief scientist in Alaska, put it to me, “We felt the science behind the Babbitt plan was very strong.”

The Babbitt plan resulted in a number of leases with oil companies being signed in 1999 but in January of 2005, the Bush administration announced a new plan that eliminated the conservation area around Teshekpuk Lake altogether. I asked Robert Schneider, the Bureau of Land Management district manager responsible for the North Slope, why his agency had scrapped the Babbitt plan. The administration, he told me, had ordered that all decisions that affected oil and gas leasing must be reconsidered. “We’re in a time of energy crisis and the President’s energy policy is to encourage energy development. This is an area that has potential.”

The future of the National Petroleum Reserve is currently tied up in lawsuits, but the prospect of the entire twenty-three and a half million acres being leased to oil companies is deeply troubling to environmentalists. The authors of Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope write that “if commercial discoveries extend to the vicinity of Barrow, the pipeline system would extend more than 250 miles from east to west, with spur lines twenty to fifty miles long trending north–south from the trunk lines.” If the 1002 section of the wildlife refuge were also developed, a similar web of pipelines would extend a further one hundred miles east—thereby covering 350 miles of the North Slope coast, and turning what had not long before been a wilderness into something resembling a frozen version of northern New Jersey.


The issue of what to drill on the North Slope has in many ways only distracted attention from the larger energy crisis. According to Paul Roberts’s The End of Oil, the amount of new oil being discovered in the United States has been in decline since 1960 and American oil production as a whole peaked in 1970. As Roberts puts it, “Although we will not run out of oil tomorrow, we are nearing the end of what might be called the easy oil.” Not even the Bush administration disagrees with this bleak assessment. The Cheney report, for its part, notes that the United States produces 39 percent less oil today than it did in 1970.

But that’s about as far as the agreement between the administration and its critics goes. Environmentalists argue that declining oil production shows that both conservation and new sources of energy are now more needed than ever. Following the Katrina disaster, the administration has been mentioning both of these; but it still sees the decline as a reason to increase, at all costs, the supply of oil. The drive to lease the wildlife refuge and the parts of the petroleum reserve to oil companies can be seen as a reflection of what one exasperated environmentalist described to me as a general administration policy to “drill it all.”

Such an approach would do very little to solve the energy problem. The United States has only 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves yet uses 25 percent of its oil. If the US continues its present rate of consumption it will quickly run through its present reserves as well as any new domestic sources which might be discovered. In any case, the new discoveries tend to be in expensive and high-risk places such as the North Slope or the Gulf of Mexico.

The present energy crisis, moreover, results from a sharp rise in consumption that has outrun a tightening supply. Most of the oil in the United States is used for fueling the cars and trucks that have been almost entirely responsible for the growth in demand over the last few decades. The percentage of US oil used in cars and trucks has risen from 52 percent in 1974, just after the first OPEC embargo, to 66 percent last year. As Jad Mouawad and Matthew Wald recently put it in The New York Times, “The fundamental problem…is that Americans depend almost exclusively on relatively large and heavy private vehicles.” Places such as the wildlife refuge and Teshekpuk Lake are being sacrificed to subsidize our unrestrained addiction to automobiles.

The addiction to automobiles adversely affects the North Slope in other ways as well. As Jonathan Waterman notes, each gallon of gasoline burned in a car or a truck releases five pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is the principal cause of global warming and the Arctic has experienced warming more than any other part of the globe. Impacts of a Warming Arctic, a study of warming temperatures conducted jointly by eight Arctic nations, observes that Arctic temperatures have risen at twice the rate of the rest of the globe. As Elizabeth Kolbert noted recently in The New Yorker,* average temperatures in some parts of Alaska have risen six degrees since the early 1980s and there is concern on the North Slope that the underlying 100,000-year-old permafrost could thaw. If the permafrost disappears, the tundra will no longer be impermeable. Impacts of a Warming Arctic points out that the region’s surface water could drain away and large sections of the North Slope could become desert.


Bill Weber, Steve Zack, and I spent several days traveling down the swollen Nigu River before reaching the Colville, where leasing may also soon begin. We were on a stretch of the river which flows west to east and carves a series of steep bluffs into the last ridge above the coastal plain. As we traveled, we encountered some of the early migrants of the Western Arctic caribou herd with this year’s newborn calves. We also began to see grizzly bears, 75 percent of whose diet in the spring consists of caribou calves.

Soon we encountered the Colville’s famous population of raptor birds. On the icy outcrops of its high bluffs, huge, ramshackle nests balanced precariously, the rocks below streaked with guano. As we floated by, peregrine and gyrfalcons screamed in alarm while rough-legged hawks and golden eagles wheeled above. Zack told us that the peregrines preyed on shorebirds and waterfowl, that the gyrfalcons specialized in ptarmigans—arctic grouse—while rough-legged hawks primarily ate lemmings and voles. The eagles hunted ground squirrels, arctic marmots, and occasionally even small caribou.

Our plan was to proceed by floatplane from the Colville to Teshekpuk Lake, where we would resupply a group of biologists engaged in a Wildlife Conservation Society study of shorebirds, including sandpipers, curlews, and dunlins. Conservationists consider Teshekpuk a biological “hot spot,” uniquely productive of bird life. The authors of Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities see Teshekpuk as exemplifying what they call “source-sink population dynamics,” a theory holding that while the wildlife population may appear to be evenly distributed across a large area, there are within that area places of high-quality habitat (the “source”) that effectively supply the excess population that disperses across the larger area (the “sink”). If the source area is damaged, the result can be “an unexpected decline of species even though the total habitat loss might be modest.” The authors of the report believe that Teshekpuk is just such a source area and fear that if it is developed there could be dangerous consequences for all the species that migrate there.

What makes the Teshekpuk region so productive for so many birds is—as is the case with the Colville raptors—a unique combination of circumstances: the rich supply of plankton in its marshes and ponds in the Arctic summer; the intense insect life that allows adult birds to regain the strength needed for their post-breeding migrations and young birds to grow; and, finally, the region’s remoteness from predators. Teshekpuk, Zack pointed out, is one of the most remote places on earth and its very remoteness is critical to how it works. It has sources of food for its migratory populations only during the two months of the Arctic summer, while the predators that might prey on the migratory birds “need twelve months of food in order to survive.” Zack’s concern—along with that of other ornithologists—is that oil development will create nesting and perching sites for glaucous gulls and ravens, and dens for arctic foxes, all of which will prey on Teshekpuk’s birds. These creatures are garbage feeders who will find refuse around the oil camps; and they will readily adapt to feeding on eggs.

In the end, we were unsuccessful in getting to Teshekpuk. The thaw ponds on which the pilot of our floatplane hoped to land were still partially frozen and the pilot feared we might hit the ice. From the air, however, we were able look down on the strange world of the Arctic plain—on its Pleistocene water, its sedge meadows, and its tundra. It is not a landscape for everybody. After a late-winter trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Gail Norton, the secretary of the interior, referred to it as a “flat white nothingness”—a comment suggesting the danger the region faces. But as Zack put it to me, the argument of environmentalists concerning the petroleum reserve is “not about precluding oil development. It’s about striking some real balance between oil development and conservation.” Bruce Babbitt’s allocation of land between drilling and conservation was accepted by many environmentalists. But such sensible solutions are not what the Bush administration and the oil companies have in mind. The “flat white nothingness” may soon be darkened by oil rigs.

—October 20, 2005


The Specter Haunting Alaska’: An Exchange March 9, 2006

  1. *

    See “The Climate of Man—I; Annals of Science,” The New Yorker, April 25, 2005.

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