- Historic Sites
Our Last Great Wilderness
America’s greed for oil has drastically upset the ecological balance of Alaska’s North Slope, and the end is not in sight
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
On September 14 it broke through the ice into open water that stretched as far as the sailors could see toward the Alaskan coast. While small exploration ships and a Canadian icebreaker had made the Northwest Passage since Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempts, this was the first commercial ship to do so. A week later it arrived off Point Barrow, to be greeted by Secretary Hickel and other officials. (The Manhattan could not reach Prudhoe Bay because of shallow water, and, in fact, if tankers are used to haul out the oil, some sort of staging system will be necessary.)
Meanwhile, throughout 1969, preparations for construction of the TransAlaska Pipeline Systems, or TAPS, went forward, even though the Interior Department had not yet granted permission for the project (which would require making an exception to the general freeze on land allocations). When Secretary Hickel authorized the TAPS oil companies to build an all-year road from Livengood to the Yukon so that pipe for the project could be hauled that far north, he remarked that “the performance on this road construction will bear direct relevance to our subsequent response to the eight-hundred-mile pipeline application. ” The road was the first leg of a projected 390-mile all-year link to Prudhoe Bay.
The pipeline will be mammoth, with a four-foot girth. The eight hundred miles of pipe are being imported from Japan. With pumping stations, terminal facilities, and access roads it will cost some $900,000,000. TAPS was originally a consortium of Atlantic-Richfield, BP, and Humble, but more companies have joined in. They hoped to have the oil flowing by 1972. However, legal action initiated by conservation groups led to the issuance, on April 13, 1970, of a federal court order enjoining Hickel from issuing a right-of-way permit for extending the road from the Yukon to Prudhoe Bay, pending settlement of a dispute on rightof-way width and further assessment of the environmental effects.
Of the many formidable problems raised by this project the most serious arise from the high temperature of the oil—and hence of the pipe itself. The oil, heated in the bowels of the earth, comes out of the ground at about 160°, and, from the friction of its high-speed flow through the pipe and the energy introduced by pumping, it may be even hotter when it reaches Valdez at its southern terminus.
Thus, if the pipe were laid directly on permafrost, it would melt itself into the ground, forming a giant trench and causing severe erosion. Where there were wedges of ice in otherwise solid ground, a cavity would form under the pipe which could produce a rupture. With 500,000 gallons of fast-moving oil in every mile of pipe, such a rupture would deluge the landscape. On a slope, a sudden mudflow could carry away part of the pipe, producing the same effect. To reach Valdez the pipe must cross the Fairweather Fault, where slippage produced one of the most violent earthquakes of modern times, bringing Anchorage down in ruins and causing severe damage in Valdez.
The obvious route for the line, insofar as possible, is along rivers where the permafrost lies deep and gravel for insulation is plentiful. But a break there could have particularly disastrous effects. A spill along the proposed route of the pipe beside the Dietrich River, after it has crossed the 4,650-foot Dietrich Pass, would send oil rushing down that stream and ultimately, via the Yukon, to the sea.
This would affect spawning beds, waterfowl breeding areas, and the entire wildlife regime of the area. Another danger is disturbance of the spawning beds either by upstream silting during construction or by destruction of the beds themselves through removal of their gravel. Salmon and arctic char fight their long upstream battles to lay their eggs on flat gravel beds beneath clearflowing water.
Another concern has been the effect of the pipeline as a barrier to caribou migrations. For a considerable distance the pipeline will be carried across permafrost areas on stilts. A pipe four feet in diameter standing on two-foot stilts would be a formidable obstacle to the caribou. Undisturbed northward movement of the herds in spring is vital to their survival since, in order to reach the calving grounds when the young are born, they must cross the mountain passes before the snow gets soft. Otherwise the calves are dropped too early and abandoned.
Since the rivers themselves present ever-changing obstacles to migration, the animals may learn to bypass such an impediment. Early fears that their movements would be disturbed by roads and other such works of man seem unfounded: herds have moved freely across airstrips and, in dark periods, some even have been known to rest on drill pads. It may also be possible, at natural crossing points, to raise the pipe enough to permit the passage of herds.