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
Recent offshore exploration north of Alaska and the Canadian oil strike at the mouth of the Mackenzie also indicate that extensive oil deposits lie in that vast region. The extension of continental structure—the so-called continental shelf of shallow water—fringing Alaska is as large as the state itself. Of all continental shelf along United States shores, half is off Alaska.
Thus plenty of oil seems to be there. One can argue that were it not for the subsidy of American producers by means of import restrictions, it would not be economical to exploit at this time.
“Only with the continuation of a reasonable import control program,” said Rawleigh Warner, Jr., chairman of Mobil, early in 1970, “will it be economically desirable for oil companies to continue their search for additional reserves in remote and difficult areas such as this.” A similar view has been expressed by Michael L. Haider, chairman of Standard of New Jersey, who predicted that Alaskan oil will not be able to compete with Middle Eastern oil on world markets.
There is little doubt, however, that the imports of competitive oil will continue to be controlled, and that North Slope exploitation will proceed. The great responsibility of the American people and their government, therefore, is to see that the oil is extracted without destroying this continent’s last great wilderness.
The life of the North Slope and its fringing seas is not precious merely for sentimental reasons. It is of great biological importance. The manner in which these life forms have adapted to a harsh environment is unique. It is the fruit of millions of years of slow evolution. The lessons that these plants and animals can teach us for our own survival and welfare are many, but some of these organisms could be completely wiped out in a decade.
Aa single example, Dr. Laurence Irving, of the University of Alaska, cites a warbler that winters in a certain spot in Venezuela, then migrates through the Anaktuvuk Pass to find, “with the accuracy of an intercontinental missile,” its nesting place on the North Slope. The warbler’s weight of ten grams, he points out, “contains the entire machinery for guidance of its navigation, for its memory and operation in flight, and for determining its initiation.”
What a loss to all humanity—and all nature—if such a creature were wiped out by careless tampering with the environment!
The face of the land could also be altered radically. If the tundra is destroyed and the muddy ice that underlies it melts and flows away, the surface in many areas will be below sea level. It would then not be long before Alaskan territory would be correspondingly reduced.
This, then, is a great challenge to American wisdom and ingenuity. There is no doubt but that the oil companies are trying to meet it. “Don’t you like your stockholders?” said Dr. Max Brewer, head of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, as he showed a photograph of Prudhoe Bay State No. 1, immersed in a mud held, to an oil company man. His point was that it is far more economical to make the initial investment and insulate the permafrost.
The oil companies reportedly have now agreed among themselves not to move equipment across the tundra during the four or five months of the summer thaw. They are using air-cushioned hovercraft and the big helicopters known as flying cranes to hop from one site to another. Two drill rigs that can be broken down into eighteen-thousandpound units were ferried across the tundra last summer in this way, although one flying crane crashed disastrously.
The oilmen are also planning to drill four to six wells from a single pad, boring obliquely to cover a 640-acre sector of the oil reservoir. This will reduce both cost, in terms of pad construction, and disturbance of the tundra. AtlanticRichfield and Humble have built a twohundred-man camp at Prudhoe at a cost of $7,500,000, of which $2,000,000 was for the sewage and water-supply system. Both are a major challenge in a permafrost region.
From the days of the first European settlers the American tradition has been one of conquest—conquest of hostile tribes, of a hostile environment, and of vast distances. As pointed out by Starker Leopold, this spirit persists. It is reflected in the indignant comment of Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens, who dismissed the Interior Department’s pipeline stipulations as “stupid, absolutely stupid.”
“Alaskans know Alaska,” he told the Alaska Science Conference in 1969. “I’m fed up to here with people who try to tell us how to develop our country.”
“Tomorrow,” said Alaska’s Governor Keith H. Miller on the eve of the great 1969 lease sale, “we will reach out to claim our birthright. We will rendezvous with our dreams.”
A more sensitive expression of that pioneer spirit was written by Robert W. Service: