Our Last Great Wilderness

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The Navy in those days was concerned with having access to sufficient fuel reserves for its fleet, newly converted from coal to oil. Three oil fields in the United States proper had been set aside as Naval Petroleum Reserves, including one at Teapot Dome in Wyoming.

In 1923 Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall acted to set aside the entire western part of the North Slope as Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4. Hardly had he done so when it was discovered that he had accepted $100,000 or more to allow a private oil company to exploit the Teapot Dome reserve. He was fined $100,000 and imprisoned.

Meanwhile, the Navy asked the Geological Survey to make a study of Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, better known as Pet 4. This was completed in 1926, but no further action was taken until the enormously increased fuel consumption of World War II caused alarm. Reconnaissance in 1943 and 1944 disclosed seeps near Umiat, and an assessment suggested that an oil-bearing area “of indicated major importance” lay within the reserve.

Using amphibious techniques perfected during the war, the Navy landed equipment on the Arctic coast and hauled it across the tundra to various drilling sites, primarily at Umiat and near the coast at Cape Simpson (both areas of extensive seepage). Airstrips and base camps were built. When the war ended the work went on, and by 1953 a total of thirty-six test wells and forty-four smaller core holes had been drilled, some of them twelve thousand feet deep. At times as many as five hundred men worked on the North Slope, and a total of $47,000,000 was spent.

The results were disappointing. Oilbearing structures were penetrated, the largest reservoir being that at Umiat with an estimated seventy million barrels, but this was by no means enough to justify the enormous cost of Arctic petroleum extraction and transport.

 

In 1946 one party went east of Pet 4 to explore along the Sagavanirktok River—now known to oilmen all over the world as the Sag River. In that area, alongside Prudhoe Bay, geologists reported some promising “closed anticlines”—domed structures produced millions of years ago by folding of rock layers, within which oil tends to accumulate. However, no drilling was done.

Thus, sad to relate, prospectors for the Navy missed making the great strike. Had they done so, the history of the North Slope might have been quite different, for the Navy would have been far more inclined to hold the reservoirs of oil in reserve than would commercial firms answerable to profit-hungry stockholders looking for big dividends.

The final report to the Navy, when Pet 4 prospecting was halted in 1953, said that “the likelihood of usable petroleum deposits in the area are poor.” However, it noted, usable gas accumulations had been tapped. One well, near Barrow, was supplying that community with gas, obviating the need for an expensive delivery of fuel via the Arctic Ocean.

While the Navy-sponsored exploration did not hit the jackpot, it did demonstrate the extreme vulnerability of the North Slope to disturbance by man. When giant tractors hauled sled trains of heavy equipment across the snowcovered tundra, little or no harm was done. But if this occurred after melting had exposed the vegetation and the covering layer “was destroyed, the otherwise permanently frozen muck below, known as permafrost, melted in the summer sun. The “road” became a muddy canal. If there was any slope, this soon became a torrent.

As noted by Dr. Max Brewer, head of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow, during a 1969 ecology conference, twelve feet of surface material could be eroded in this manner within two summers. Drilling has shown that the ground beneath the tundra south of Barrow is frozen to a depth of 1,330 feet.

The Army also had its troubles with permafrost. During World War II it was called upon to build airfields, hangars, and roads in the Alaskan interior and discovered how little it knew about the peculiarities of such terrain. When an airstrip of pierced planking or pavement was laid over a shallow layer of fill, the summer sun, shining on the surface day and night, generated enough heat to melt the frozen ground underneath. The result was that some parts of the runways sank and others did not, producing a graceful roller-coaster effect. When buildings were set directly on permafrost, they too settled in a lopsided manner, at times breaking apart.

From experience (and from studying Russian publications on the subject) the Army engineers learned to lay a bed of gravel about five feet thick over the permafrost as insulation before building anything on top of it. An alternate scheme was to drive pilings down into the frozen ground and then set the structure on top of the pilings, well clear of contact with the ground.