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Inside the Endangered Arctic Refuge

On June 6, we flew to Fairbanks in central Alaska, continuing north early the next morning to Coldfoot, an old gold-mining camp on the south slope of the Brooks Range. Coldfoot today is a scattered settlement on Alaska’s only north–south road, known as the Haul Road—in effect a service road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Over the years, the volume of oil flowing south through the elevated steel pipe has fallen some 60 percent, from around two million barrels daily in 1988 to 683,000 barrels daily by July 2005. The oil companies allege that the flow of oil has slowed because Prudhoe reserves are so diminished, a contention they use to bolster their increasingly shaky arguments for ANWR drilling. More significantly, it now appears, the volume has been reduced to lessen oil pressure in old plumbing that, after thirty years, is no longer reliable.

An Alaskan hunter and trapper named Jack Reakoff who inhabits a log cabin in the old gold-rush settlement at Wiseman, a few miles north of Coldfoot, has learned from local pipeline workers that the underground sections in the mountains are dangerously corroded. Crews trying to patch the line here have uncovered “pipe so thin that it is pulsing,” Mr. Reakoff told us. Jim Campbell, an outfitter, said that in the early 1990s, when he worked at Prudhoe, there was already talk of serious and widespread corrosion of the pipeline systems, which has become all too evident in the years since.

On March 14 of this year, Alyeska Pipeline Service, the company that operates the pipeline on behalf of BP, Exxon-Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, and others, acknowledged a spill of 267,000 gallons of heavy crude at Prudhoe,6 the worst leak yet recorded on the North Slope tundra. Constructing a bypass allowed Alyeska to resume production, but on August 7, BP announced that a small leak in the feeder pipes had obliged it to shut down the eastern half of its Prudhoe Bay field. Widespread corrosion and pitting had thinned the steel so badly that sixteen miles of pipeline had to be replaced. BP estimates that the pipeline will not be usable again until January 2007 at the earliest.

The underlying intentions of those who advocate drilling in the Wildlife Refuge are still debated even in Alaska, where people wonder, for example, whether or not the corroded sections of pipeline will be repaired, rebuilt, or replaced. Another question is whether—in view of these and other growing obstacles, including skeptical and adverse public opinion—the amount of oil beneath the refuge really justifies the continuing investment, not to mention the loss of a national treasure.

Like many informed Alaskans, Reakoff doubts that the industry seriously intends to drill a new oil field in the 1002: Why would the White House and Big Oil campaign so hard for those 1.5 million acres when 23.5 million acres are already available next door in the National Petroleum Reserve? The answer may lie in the offshore leases, which already extend six miles from the coast and almost as far east as the Canadian border. This is much too far for undersea pipelines—subject to additional hazards such as saltwater corrosion and shifting ice—to be dependably hooked up to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which lies sixty miles west of the refuge’s western border. Increasingly it appears that the industry seeks control of the 1002 as a land base for the extended pipelines, flow stations, and other infrastructure that will be required to develop those offshore areas. “Alaskans are still arguing about the refuge,” Reakoff said, “but the real story now is the NPR…. People here have no idea what’s going on in the NPR and folks in the Lower 48 have even less.”

Occupying most of the North Slope west of the Wildlife Refuge, the Petroleum Reserve, too, is unspoiled wildlife habitat, and arguably as biologically significant; so it is sad that, as a practical matter, it cannot be saved. The federal government has already sold leases there, and important deposits of oil, gas, coal, and other minerals have been found. This should not mean that public opinion can’t still have an effect in ensuring that it is developed with discrimination. Our idea in June 2006 was to look at wild regions in the Petroleum Reserve that should be spared during its imminent transformation from our nation’s greatest roadless wilderness to a road-scarred, marred, gouged, and contaminated wasteland, stained by leaks and spills of petroleum and toxic drilling fluids and littered with rusted drums and pipe and gear.

From Coldfoot we flew by bush plane to the far western region of the Petroleum Reserve to observe the migration and mass calving of the Western Arctic caribou, the largest of Alaska’s mighty herds (490,000 animals, in this year’s estimate) and a foundation of the economy and culture of twenty-two Indian and Inupiat communities in western Alaska. Continuing westward, and crossing the western border of the petroleum reserve, we flew to the coast to talk to the Inupiat whalers at Point Lay, a village on the Chukchi Sea, and to see the white whale calving area nearby. We also visited the village of Nuiqsut on the Colville River. The people of these two villages, like those of Kaktovik in the wildlife refuge, are increasingly concerned about their marine mammals and their culture’s future in the face of impending industrial development, both offshore and on land. Every native community in Alaska lives in dread of very serious chemical contamination, not only from environments polluted by resource mining but, in a dreadful irony, from the toxins absorbed by the revered creatures at the heart of their traditional diet, such as caribou and whales and seals.

On the morning of our departure, the skies had cleared, leaving new snow on the mountains, and toward noon we left Coldfoot on Coyote Air, which consists of a pair of sturdy old DeHavillands, that legendary aircraft of the Great Northwest. The pilot and proprietor Dirk Nickisch banked the plane over the Haul Road and the pipeline before heading north and west, leaving behind late spring in the boreal forest and climbing heavily into a precipitous treeless landscape of gray shale escarpment, gorges, and brown mountainside. Skirting wind-whipped ridges edged with knives of snow, it leveled off in a more gradual ascent across plateaus of treeless alpine tundra where blackwater ponds were filled to the margins with white ice; skeins of spidery old tracks from the caribou migrations led everywhere and nowhere. Farther west, crossing the mountains, we came across bands of northbound caribou, scattered along the gravel banks of one of the many torrents that would impede but never halt migration. Down a mountainside swung a dark sow grizzly with a sandy cub. Dall sheep stood white and still on a ridge overlooking a headwaters creek in the North Slope drainage of the great Colville River, which flows east through the Petroleum Reserve before turning north toward the Beaufort Sea.

In this remote region of the reserve, almighty in its emptiness, the mountains are small and the barren ground is endless, descending northward some two hundred miles toward Point Barrow and the Arctic Ocean. That the Petroleum Reserve seems less dramatic and less beautiful than the Wildlife Refuge, where the mountains rise two thousand feet higher and are scarcely twenty miles inland, comes as a mild relief, since we know that alternative energies, tragically delayed by the stunted ambitions of industry and government, will never become competitive in time to save the greater part of it from being despoiled.

Below the plane at least ten thousand caribou are in view, seeking lichens on the hard snow-patched barren as they drift westward toward our common destination in the Utukok River uplands. On every side, the spindly calves are already appearing, close under the mother’s flanks or nose pressed to her hind legs. At our low elevation and slow speed, even the larger bird species are identifiable without binoculars: tundra swans, the short-eared and the snowy owl, drake pintails, a Pacific loon, glaucous and mew gulls, two juvenile golden eagles (which occasionally will seize a newborn caribou). The hurtling white grouse flushed here and there are the rock ptarmigan; the dark swift sharp-winged raptors are not peregrine falcons but one or more of the three species of marine predators called jaegers—German for “hunters”—which after nesting will return to the oceans of the earth to pass the remainder of the year pirating other birds.

After our caribou reconnaissance in the far west of the reserve, our pilot makes close passes over a long gravel bar in the Utukok River before landing and quickly offloading his passengers and cargo. Then the plane is aloft and its drone dies away into the mountains and the sky is empty, as the great earth silence of the Arctic settles in.

We hump duffels and gear up a steep snowbank to an outcrop of broken shale and tussock. On this tundra knoll above the gray cold river are the first flowers of the arctic spring, a large gold-yellow cinquefoil and a harebell of deep midnight blue, grown close together in the moss and tight low heather as if keeping each other company against the elements.

The arctic sun scarcely sets and yet the air grows colder. Warming our hands with bowls of hot-spiced soup, alert for wolf or wolverine hunting the river edges, we perch on our lidded food buckets before the cook tent, observing the open tundra hills from which the caribou will soon appear.

Next morning six caribou graze the tundra behind our camp. Across the river, four more drink from a pool obscured by low red stalks of willow, and others still are drifting in. Three long-tailed jaegers swoop up, down, and around this grassy ridge. A fat lemming that sets out across the broad snowbank down the slope is struck almost at once by a jaeger that alights to harry the stunned rodent before letting it bumble back across the snow toward its low cover.

We head upriver. Before long, Tom Campion whispers back, “I’ve got a wolf.” In his spotting scope, on a bed of dead matted vegetation on the river edge, lies the first white wolf that I have ever seen. Ears up, forepaws still neatly crossed, alert but unalarmed, its gaze is fixed on the point where we crouch, half-seen, among scrub willow stalks.

The white wolf is about to slip away. But to our astonishment, she lingers a few moments before turning without haste into the willows. A second wolf, a big gray one, rises from camouflage at the willow edge and stares our way. We think this is the male. Slowly he moves toward the place where the other wolf had vanished, at which point, miraculously, she reappears: ears forward, the two stare not at us but at something in the hills across the water. They are perhaps a hundred yards away.

The white wolf crosses the willows and springs up onto the grassy bank, then comes downriver to a point just opposite where we still crouch in disbelief. By now she must surely have our scent, but she only observes us, still unalarmed, as if, having no experience of such a smell, she has no reason to fear it. Meanwhile the gray one, slipping through the willows, comes right toward us. It is not a case of Lupus stalking Homo, for he makes no real effort at concealment. He is no more than forty feet away when the bare red willow stalks thin out, leaving him half-exposed. He stops then and fixes us with gold-flecked wolf eyes, as if to divine what these peculiar brutes are doing in wolf country. Then he turns and cuts across and rejoins the white wolf on the bank. Without greeting her, he raises his muzzle high, black nostrils flared into the wind, turning his head in a minute arc, sifting our scents. Finally, trailed by his she-wolf, he trots uphill a little way in no great hurry and lies down in the grass. In remote mountains a hundred miles from the nearest indigenous hunters on the coast, it seemed more likely than not that these fearless animals had never beheld a man before in all their lives.

From the Chukchi seacoast, we fly two hundred miles eastward over the icebound barrens to the northeast sector of the petroleum reserve to look at the enormous Lake Teshekpuk, which lies inland from the Beaufort Sea some 160 miles west of Prudhoe Bay. The coastal plain here has its own small herd of caribou, and the new calves have attracted a large black-and-brown grizzly. At the aircraft’s approach, the bear takes to its heels in that untidy and galumphing grizzly gallop that makes its loose long-haired robe appear on the point of falling off.

The Teshekpuk wetlands, first set aside in the Reagan administration, are critical for wildfowl breeding, molting, and staging; in 1999 the marshy tundra between the northeast lakeshore and the Beaufort Sea was actually exempted from all future leasing. Unfortunately this area has fossil fuel deposits, and under the present administration its protection has been summarily removed. It is here that the Bureau of Land Management is offering leases on 1.7 million acres that for many years under previous administrations have been exempted from oil and gas development. For this outrage, it has been sued by several environmental groups. If the preliminary ruling of September 7 by the US District Court in Anchorage in favor of the environmental groups should be upheld, the lease sale scheduled for September 27 would not take place. Since the Bush administration seems sure to file a protest, Teshekpuk promises to be the scene of the first fierce battle in the fight to spare at least a little of the petroleum reserve for wildlife and our inheritors.

As we cross the ice-clotted Colville delta, Prudhoe’s new Alpine oil drilling field is already visible across the dead flat land. The thousand square miles of Prudhoe Bay constitute one of the largest industrial complexes on our planet, imposed on amorphous waterland by grids of access roads and drilling pads and elevated pipes linked to lone factory-like installations that rise and sink all the way to the horizon. First one sees the Alpine field, then the Kuparuk field, and in the distance, the colorless, cheerless, soulless aggregation of service depots known as Deadhorse. Beyond Deadhorse lies the original Prudhoe complex, then a white wall of ice and fog—the Beaufort Sea—and, finally, North Star, BP’s huge offshore drilling platform, like the shadow of a floating city in the frozen mists.


The political climate for drilling in the Wildlife Refuge may be changing. This past spring, after years of rumors, it was finally confirmed that exploratory well KIC-1, dug covertly by Chevron in the winters of 1985 and 1986 near the Prudhoe end of the Wildlife Refuge, “was ultimately a disappointment.”7 Since one dry well is not always indicative of overall potential, what, if anything, do those twenty years of secrecy about KIC-1 suggest about the industry’s long-term ambitions? In Alaska one hears rumors that some sort of tectonic shift had moved the oil strata previously thought to lie beneath the refuge to the offshore area east of Prudhoe Bay. (If nothing else, this might help explain why the refuge boundaries were acceptable to Big Oil’s legislators in 1980 and also the continuing industrial interest in offshore leasing.) The more I inquired, the more I heard that the amount of economically recoverable oil in the 1002 section might not justify drilling, and that therefore the fixation on this region in the energy industry, Congress, and the White House had some other explanation besides the one about using 1002 as a land base for an offshore extension of the oil-field complex. In addition, gaining access to 1002 might set a precedent for corporate control of other environmentally sensitive public lands, including those off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of what Alaskans call the lower forty-eight.

On August 23, these rumors were reignited by an acknowledgment by new Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson that, while Exxon still supported the campaign to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “estimates about how much oil ANWR may hold could turn out to be illusive…. There may be nothing there. We don’t know.”8 Coming so soon after the news that Chevron’s test well had been a disappointment, it is hard not to interpret Exxon’s belated admission as some sort of feeler. If the oilmen’s doubts about ANWR’s potential are genuine, might they now attempt to dump their relentless campaign to develop it, declaring patriotically that our beautiful national heritage must never be defaced by low-percentage exploratory drilling? And might they even, perhaps, encourage Congress to abrogate the 1002 clause in the Alaska Lands Act and award the refuge the full protection that most other Americans have wanted all along? This would be in exchange, of course, for that overland pipeline that would facilitate those offshore wells, and for the uncontested right to exploit the petroleum reserve from end to end. But only Big Oil would wish for this exchange, since hundreds of miles of roads and pipes in the 1002 would be merely a lesser disaster, almost as destructive as the drilling. Everyone concerned with protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must oppose any such maneuver.

On August 23, the same day as Exxon’s admission that ANWR might not be worth drilling after all, new leaks caused the flow of oil in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to fall to an all-time low; on that date also, Alaska’s Governor Frank Murkowski, a former US senator and a leader in the twenty-five-year fight to exploit the refuge, came in a poor third in his state’s Republican primary with just 10 percent of the vote.9 Could these, too, be auspicious signs and portents?

Ted Stevens, the Republican senator from Alaska who with Murkowski has battled for decades to allow drilling in the 1002, still dismisses the Wildlife Refuge as “a wasteland.” But unfortunately for his argument, his Republican colleague Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has traveled there and seen it for himself.

I will have to say, Senator Stevens,” Chafee protested a few years ago during a debate, “[that] I have been to forty-nine of the fifty states [and] this is the most beautiful place I have ever been.”

—September 20, 2006


Canada and the Caribou December 21, 2006

  1. 6

    This is not to be compared with the 11-million-gallon Exxon oil tanker spill of March 1989 off Port Valdez, or the 700,000-gallon loss in 1978 when vandals blew up the recently completed Prudhoe pipe. (Leaks and spills in the Prudhoe system average well over one per day.)

  2. 7

    See Joel K. Bourne Jr., “Fall of the Wild,” National Geographic, May 2006, pp. 73–74. For many years, the KIC-1 results were as fiercely guarded as the list of oil industry “advisers” in Dick Cheney’s behind-closed-doors White House meetings of his “Energy Task Force” of May 2001 (though Enron’s Ken Lay and Exxon’s executives are known to have taken part).

  3. 8

    Exxon-Mobil CEO Says Current High Oil Prices Undermine Global Economic Growth,” The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2006.

  4. 9

    According to friends in Fairbanks, new Alaskan residents especially were displeased when Murkowski entered into closed-door dealings with oil entrepreneur Dick Cheney and Prudhoe’s chief lease-holders—Exxon-Mobil, BP, Conoco-Phillips—in an effort to ram through his legislature a $20-billion contract for an immense natural gas line to run south to Canada and the US, complete with more enormous tax breaks for the Big Oil beneficiaries of Cheney’s National Energy Policy of May 2001.

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