I remember standing on the tundra at Prudhoe Bay, under a sign with a big “0” to mark the origin of the Alaskan oil pipeline. There was a small place at the start of the pipeline where visitors were allowed to touch it, a shock of warmth in that very cold place. I could actually feel the oil move through the tube, a sensation of volume and power and heat. In the fall of 1995, a civic organization known as Commonwealth North had invited me to Alaska to give a talk on higher education. When I arrived I also learned that they had planned an unusual excursion for me — a flight from Anchorage to Deadhorse and thence by jeep to Prudhoe Bay to observe the oil refineries there. I later learned that this was standard operating procedure for all of their visitors, but there was some extra incentive since I was from Washington, where Alaska’s oil and environmental interests competed daily for the attention of lawmakers.
The sight of the huge oil refineries on the edge of the Arctic Ocean was eye-opening for me. I was even more astonished by the tours of the facilities — the size, the complexity, and the stark nature of the lives of the men (mostly men, very few women) who would work for several weeks without a break at the refineries, and then fly back “home” to Texas or California or Nebraska or Juneau for a week-long break with families. Given the cold and long dark winters, the workers remained mostly indoors; alcohol was forbidden, and entertainment was scarce (imagine life before the Internet in a remote, lonely place where you had to be inside most of the time!). My Alaskan guides hastened to point out the relative safety of the refinery management, and the many benefits that Alaskans received as a result of the drilling (notably, an annual cash payment as a result of the oil windfall). The oil business is the business of Alaska. I remained skeptical, wondering how so much machinery across so many acres could operate without some mistakes, some system failures, some glitches.
As we drove across the tundra on narrow roads of packed ice designed to limit environmnetal impact, I could see caribou and other native species grazing in the vast wilderness on either side. The land was stark, beautiful in a desolate way, utterly cold.
These memories came back to me this week with the news of the shutdown of the Alaskan pipeline at BP’s Prudhoe Bay refinery because of corrosion and leaks in parts of the line. Such an episode should not be a surprise, given the age and sheer size of the pipeline. But this interruption in U.S. oil production comes at a critical moment in the saga of this nation’s dependency on fossil fuels, with the Middle East crisis and Iraq war having already pushed the price of a barrel of oil to record levels, and the cost of filling the tank to new highs. Coincidentally — some would suggest cynically — profits have never been greater for the executives of the big oil companies.
Even before this crisis, the Prudhoe Bay operation was declining in productivity as a quarter-century of drilling tapped out the capacity of the wells. Debate has raged from Deadhorse to Capitol Hill about whether to expand drilling along the northernmost plains of Alaska, the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. This episode surely will open new debate; we might hope that the debate could also be enlightened by new ideas and alternative solutions for the current and future energy demands of modern life. I wonder what those caribou would say if they could speak to us.