- 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
The wartime activities of the Army and Navy also demonstrated how easily the treeless landscape of the North Slope is defaced. In the Pacific Islands the war scars were soon overgrown, but in the open vastness of the tundra a single oil drum, abandoned vehicle, or crumbling Quonset hut can be seen for miles. Indeed, the oil drums used to fuel the tracked behemoths that hauled equipment across the tundra are the most common manifestations of civilization in that land. As one colonel in the Army Engineers wryly remarked, “The fiftygallon oil drum is the new state flower of Alaska.”
It was not only the hunt for oil that strewed steel drums across much of the Arctic. In the early postwar years fear of Soviet attack led to the construction of a chain of radar stations from Bering Strait to Greenland—the Distant Early Warning net, or DEW-line.
It was an effort that projected many Eskimos from the Stone Age to the age of electronics. As with the drill rigs, much of the heavy equipment was moved in winter when giant sleds could be hauled across the frozen tundra. Working conditions were frightful, with sub-zero winds blowing unchecked off the Arctic Ocean.
Eskimos were ideal for such work—hardy, resourceful. The best of the Eskimo “cat-skinners” who drove the giant “cats,” or tractors, learned to make repairs far from home base even in a cruel blizzard. Some, paid generous overtime wages on the same basis as men imported from warmer climes, were said to be making ten thousand dollars a year. With no sensible way to spend their money, they leafed through mailorder catalogues and, I was told, had such items as wide-screen television sets airfreighted to Barrow, even though their unpainted shacks had no electric power and there was no local television reception anyway.
However, such prosperity was exceptional. As will be seen, the Eskimo population as a whole was slipping into poverty and a crisis of adjustment.
The hunt for Alaskan oil began again shortly after Alaska achieved statehood in 1958. In 1964 the state applied to the federal Bureau of Land Management for control over some two million acres along the coast of the North Slope between Pet 4 on the west (bounded by the Colville River) and the Arctic National Wildlife Range to the east (bounded by the Canning River). The Wildlife Range, embracing 8,900,0OO acres and the most scenic part of the Brooks Range, is open to only limited access, although it could someday be invaded by drilling crews if the government so authorized.
The federal government opened up some of the land that it retained, south of the state’s newly acquired land, and the state subdivided its sector into a checkerboard of 2,560-acre tracts. Some 900,000 acres of this land were auctioned off in lease sales from 1964 to 1967, for which the state received $12,000,000 in “bonus bids.” These gave the purchaser the right to drill. If he struck oil, he would have to pay additional fees in royalties and taxes.
After a quick look at the geology of the area, Richfield (later Atlantic-Richfield) and Humble decided to gobble up a tenth of these leases and also to gamble on a costly effort to drill into a suspected anticline on federal land sixty miles south of Prudhoe Bay, between the Sag and Toolik rivers.
During the summer of 1965 and the following winter, a prodigious effort—involving what was reportedly the most ambitious nonmilitary airlift in Alaskan history—moved about four million pounds of pipe, rigging, fuel, bulldozers, house trailers, and trucks, plus a drill especially designed for use in a frigid climate, to the chosen site, christened Susie No. 1. By October, 1966, the drill had penetrated to 13,500 feet without striking oil. The bill for this “dry well” was $4,500,000.
However, the analysis of subsurface structures had revealed two promising anticlines, or humps, in buried strata near the coast, one near the Colville River and one at Prudhoe Bay. Each was about twenty square miles in area.
In the winter of 1967 the rig at Susie No. 1 was transported to Prudhoe Bay across the frozen tundra in fifty cat-train trips. On each trip three giant tractors hauled sleds carrying forty tons of cargo. On April 8, 1967, drilling began on what was to be the historic Prudhoe State No. l well (so called because it was leased from the state). Hardly a month had passed before the spring thaw weakened ice on the lake where supply planes were landing, and operations then had to be suspended for a long time.
Drilling began again in November, and a few weeks later there were indications that the drill was chewing its way through black shale or mudstone. If there was oil lower down, it could be trapped under such an impermeable layer.
At the start of 1968 came the first hint. Gas was detectable in the mud used for drilling. On January 16 Atlantic-Richfield, which was doing the drilling on behalf of itself and Humble, reported a “substantial flow of gas” from a depth of 8,500 feet.