Oil Drilling in Alaska

Government land ownership makes economic development and environmental protection difficult.

Sarah Anderson is a 14-year-old residing in Bozeman, Montana.

A large percentage of the two million barrels of oil produced every day in Alaska comes from an area known as the North Slope. The North Slope is on the eastern end of the north coast of Alaska and consists of mostly coastal plains. There are five oil fields currently in production on the North Slope; the biggest of these is Prudhoe Bay, which is also the largest oil field in North America. Another oil field of particular interest is Endicott, located about ten miles northeast of Prudhoe Bay. Endicott is the first continuous, offshore oil-producing field in the Arctic. The field is in fact two man-made islands that require a ten-mile access road and a five-mile causeway connecting the two islands. The other three fields are Kuparek, Lisburne, and Milne Point.

The Prudhoe Bay field encompasses 5,000 acres, and Endicott, the sixth largest oil field in North America, encompasses only 55 acres. It is possible for oil fields to be small because the oil wells themselves are only ten feet square. They are placed immediately next to one another.

The oil is not pumped from the wells but, when the reserve is tapped, the oil flows out under natural pressure. This means that the wells are not only small, but quiet. Modern technology has made it possible to build the oil fields on gravel pads that make a solid foundation for the equipment and insulate the underlying permafrost. Previously, oil drilling pads had to be big enough to accommodate many reserve pits to hold the waste water and mud from drilling. Now, however, a new technique of pumping the wastes back into the ground eliminates the waste of space, maintains a sub-surface pressure high enough to keep oil flowing, and reduces the possibility of spills on the tundra. If oil is not found directly beneath the well location, the well can be drilled horizontally, again reducing the area of land affected by the oil development.

When the 800-mile trans-Alaskan pipeline was built, temporary access roads were required for construction and maintenance. A breakthrough in road technology has eliminated the need for these gravel roads that leave an impact on the environment. Ocean water is pumped onto the tundra where it freezes to form an ice road from which maintenance can be done during the winter. In the summer these roads melt and leave no trace. Vehicles with huge rubber tires use the roads. Ice roads are also used for oil exploration.

There has long been a controversy between environmentalists and oil companies over whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, commonly referred to as ANWR. To put the size of the ANWR in perspective, keep in mind that Alaska contains 591,000 square miles, or about 378,000,000 acres. The ANWR is five percent of Alaska or 19 million acres. Of these acres, eight percent have been proposed for development, and only one percent would be affected by oil production.

This means that about 15,000 acres, or .004 percent of Alaska, would be affected. Actual production facilities including roads, drilling pads, living quarters, and pipelines would cover a thousand acres.

At Prudhoe Bay the vast majority of oil spills are small and never leave the gravel pads. All spills are promptly reported to government agencies and thoroughly cleaned up. There are about 250 spills each year, which sounds terrible, but a “spill” includes a single drop of oil. By this standard the average parking lot has more oil spills than that each year. Of those 250 spills, nearly half are zero-to five-gallon spills that never leave the gravel pad. The contaminated gravel is all scooped up and taken to an incinerator where the oil is burned off.

Environmentalists claim that oil drilling affects the wildlife; however, if the drill sites are any indication, most animal populations are not affected or their numbers have risen. Caribou numbers, for example, grew from 3,000 at the beginning of Prudhoe development to 5,500 at the end of development. From there the population steadily increased to its present number of 20,000 animals. A group of about 100 caribou usually winters in the Prudhoe area. The oil producing companies have taken great care to elevate the pipeline or build ramps over it for caribou migration. The only snow goose colony in the United States has also steadily increased from 50 to 180 nests.

Sometimes the oil companies are forced to use expensive means for environmental protection with questionable results. British Petroleum, the company drilling from the Endicott oil field, has been forced to install two breaches in the causeway because environmentalists felt that the Arctic cisco, a fish that spawns in nearby rivers, would not be able to reach them. It seems that many of the fish go around the causeway anyway, but British Petroleum has been very cooperative in trying to reduce the impact on the environment. Even the buildings on Endicott were assembled in Louisiana and then transported whole on a barge all the way to Alaska.

Oil drilling companies take great care to clean up and revegetate the areas they use. Parts of gravel pads that are not needed anymore are manually shoveled or raked up to reduce damage to the underlying vegetation. Studies have been done on what types of grasses to use to revegetate an area and the oil companies take pride in bringing the tundra back to its original state.

In spite of the fact that environmental effects have been minimal and the amount of land affected is small, environmental groups such as the Audubon Society still strongly oppose drilling in the ANWR. To understand why, consider the following story. In the mid-1970s, oil companies came to the Audubon Society for permission to drill on the Society’s Rainey Preserve. They got an emphatic “No!” The oil companies persisted, offering approximately $2,000,000 a year in royalties. Unsure of the environmental consequences of the drilling, the Audubon Society demanded slant drilling with pads placed outside sensitive areas. The oil companies agreed. The Society demanded expensive, quiet mufflers. The oil companies agreed. The Society required that the oil companies move out during certain times of the year. The oil companies again agreed. As the Audubon magazine put it, “There was this timeclock, and when the cranes punched in, the hardhats would have to punch out.”

Why the cooperation in the Rainey Preserve but not in the ANWR? Clearly the Audubon Society has a lot to gain from the drilling in the Rainey Preserve, but nothing in the ANWR. The Audubon Society can control what the oil companies do on their own preserves. On the other hand, they have no control over the oil companies when they drill on public land.

On privately owned property, both economic development and protection for the environment can be achieved through negotiation. But in property owned by the government, such negotiation is extremely difficult. Most of the land area in Alaska is locked up by government ownership. To assure that it is both developed and protected, we should consider transferring it to private owners.