- 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
Bears, among other animals, are finding their life pattern disturbed by the incursions of the oil companies, but they seem to be taking a certain amount of counteraction on their own. I was told of an emergency situation that arose at a scientific station on an ice floe large enough to accommodate a ski-plane landing strip. A supply plane was en route during the polar night, and when the switch was thrown to turn on the runway lights, nothing happened. The men, warmly bundled, checked the line of lights and found, from tracks in the snow, that a polar bear had systematically gone up the runway swatting each light with his paw.
Because of such incursions, oil prospecting teams are often armed. Bears are easy marks on the open terrain, and so many have been shot that this spring the grizzly hunting season was closed.
In the foothills the barren ground grizzly has upset the best-laid plans of oil prospectors and others. He will break into a food cache and bite into each can, sucking out the contents. In one case of which I was told some of the cans contained gasoline, and one was full of smoke bombs used to indicate wind direction to arriving bush pilots. Apparently one of the bombs went off when the bear bit into it, and the bear ran amok, tearing a tent to ribbons and hurling boxes for fifty yards in all directions.
The planned route of the pipe from the Dietrich Pass is across (or more probably under) the Yukon to Fairbanks, and then down the highway system to Valdez. The Interior Department has produced two book-sized volumes of stipulations for approval of TAPS. They include the posting of a $5,000,000 bond against damage done by spills, and the presence of federal monitors with construction crews to see that they do not excessively damage the terrain. Also, the pipeline must go under streams unless otherwise authorized by the Interior Department, and detailed contingency plans must be made in case of spills.
In April the oil companies, which had hoped to start work on the pipeline this summer, suffered a setback. The United States Geological Survey advised Secretary Hickel that the pipeline plan, as presently constituted, did not give adequate assurance that the environment would be protected. In particular, said the specialists, it was evident that the pipe should not be buried along most of the route, as was the intent of the TAPS project. It was estimated that the pipe would melt the ground to a depth of fifty feet, converting frozen silt into an impassable canal. At least 40 per cent of the 800-mile pipe would have to be above the ground, the experts said. This, plus the legal actions of pipeline opponents, indicated a delay of at least a year.
Once the line is built, some Alaskan conservationists fear the state will not pay much attention to oil spills and other insults to the environment. They note that in Cook Inlet, where since 1965 there have been more than 150 recorded spills from offshore rigs, tankers, barges, and the like, only five violators were prosecuted. The state, when Hickel was governor, enacted unusually strict antipollution laws; but personnel to enforce them are in short supply.
One of the most sobering bits of ecological news last year was a report from the Woods Hole Océanographie Institution in Massachusetts that global oil spillage has reached the point where even little-travelled waters in mid-ocean are coated with scum. One of the few oceans largely spared such pollution has been the Arctic. But what if a tanker like the Manhattan —or one of the proposed far larger type—is punctured by ice?
Some have suggested that such an oil spill could blacken the polar ice sufficiently to cause its melting, bringing about a change of local climate that would tip the scales of global air currents and produce a new ice age—probably a farfetched idea; but such a spill would have profound effects on the fragile balance of life in the Arctic.
In an introduction to one of Bob Marshall’s books Professor A. Starker Leopold, of the University of California, wrote: “It is characteristic of frontier societies, and Alaska still is such, to become so engrossed in the process of development as to fail to look ahead to the point of diminishing returns beyond which more development becomes a social liability rather than an asset.”
Marshall himself argued that “If Alaska were to remain primarily a great reservoir of resources, largely untapped at present, but available for future use, it would seem as if that balance which should be a major feature of sound planning would best be realized.”
A critical issue in this respect is whether the world’s oil reserves will last until alternate sources of power have been developed. Current progress toward development of fusion reactors that would tame the power of the hydrogen bomb has led many to predict that by the end of the century we will be free from overwhelming dependence on oil as our energy source.