- 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
Then, on a bitter February day, Jim Keasler, a drill engineer, decided to run a gas-flow test. The temperature was 40° below zero with a strong wind blowing as he rigged a flow line to carry any emerging gas far away from the wellhead.
At 2:13 P.M. , when he began to clear the drill pipe and allow gas to come to the surface, it was already dark. An hour later there was a roar and burst of fire as a jet of gas blew out of the flow line, sending flames fifty feet into the air. For an hour or more the flickering plume of fire lighted the snows of the North Slope, and a few days later oil had begun flowing from the well like water.
The flow from a thick sandstone layer 8,656 feet below the surface eventually rose to 2,415 barrels a day. Microscopic fossils from this layer showed that it had been laid down during the Triassic period, some two hundred million years ago.
Was this strike a fluke? Or had a major oil field been tapped? The oilmen were eager to find out by drilling a “confirmation” well on the Sag River, seven miles southeast of Prudhoe State No. 1.
Atlantic-Richfield and Humble contracted for use of an unused rig on the Colville. They hauled it down the frozen river to the Arctic Ocean and then over the sea ice between the offshore islands and the coast to Prudhoe Bay and the Sag River site.
When the drilling began it was spring, which normally would have brought operations to a halt, but in their eagerness the oilmen decided, for the first time, to drill through the summer. By dint of ingenious and expensive measures, such as covering the drill site and an airstrip with a five-foot layer of gravel to prevent thawing of the permafrost foundation, this was accomplished.
Throughout the summer the rig, Sag River State No. 1, drilled ever deeper. Within five months it had struck a threehundred-foot layer of sand in the same Triassic formation as that tapped by the Prudhoe well, and a test drew 2,300 barrels a day from the bottom fifteen feet of this layer.
The two oil companies then asked the prestigious and reputedly conservative oil consulting firm of DeGolyer and MacNaughton, in Dallas, to assess the field. Their reply: “In our opinion, this important discovery could develop into a field with recoverable reserves of some five to ten billion barrels of oil, which would rate it as one of the largest petroleum accumulations known to the world today.”
When news of the great strike came out, the ambitions of every man in the oil business caught fire. The most urgent problem for all was to decide which of the remaining blocks of unleased land was likely to be a fortune-maker. To this end as much information as possible had to be obtained by drilling on blocks already leased.
The result was a series of frantic battles with distance, cold, and other Arctic impediments. A combine of Mobil and Phillips Petroleum moved a rig by barge to the Prudhoe Bay area via Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River; British Petroleum also used barges, but made its approach from the west, through the Aleutians and the Bering Sea.
Meanwhile Walter J. Hickel, Alaska’s governor, soon to be named Secretary of the Interior, had decided to give the trucking companies a hand by building a “winter road” from the terminus of the Alaskan highway system at Livengood, 470 miles through the Brooks Range to Prudhoe Bay. The road would be usable only when the ground was frozen, and it was a race against time to finish it before the spring thaw.
Tractor trains, hauling giant sleds, had already made the trip in winter. One of them, with 380 tons of pipe for the Pan American Petroleum Corporation plus enough fuel to drive its tractors the entire route (there are no filling stations in the North), was creeping toward a well site sixty miles southwest of Prudhoe Bay (Kavik No. 1, not many miles ahead of the twenty-two-man road-building crew.
To carry the road across the Yukon at Stevens Village, the local Athabascan Indians were recruited. They laid logs, woven with metal cable, across the river ice and then pumped water from the river to cover the logs with ice. The construction crew reached this 1,500-foot bridge at the start of 1969 but were halted by a spell of extremely cold weather. Finally, on January 14, the temperature climbed to a “mild” 49° below zero, and they set forth in the almost continuous darkness with headlights helping the bulldozers as they gouged and slashed their way through the scrub forest.