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Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR: The unthinkable and 'the last great wilderness'

Craig Medred
Caribou grazing in ANWR's 1002 area, with the Brooks Range behind.
USFWS
Fireweed in bloom in ANWR.
USFWS
Double rainbow near Canning River, ANWR.
Jan Reurink / flickr via wikipedia
ANWR's coastal plain.
USFWS
The Mancha Pinnacles in ANWR.
USFWS
Polar bears on Barter Island in ANWR.
Courtesy Alan & Elaine Wilson
Canning River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 1994
Jan Reurink / flickr via wikipedia
Shell and other oil companies are embarking on offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic. Meantime, the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off limits to oil drilling.
Aaron Jansen illustration
Canning River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 1994
Jan Reurink / flickr via wikipedia
Brooks Range and the coastal plain of ANWR.
USFWS
Caribou grazing along a river in ANWR.
USFWS

Editor's note: This is the second of a four-part series detailing how the nation decided to allow offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic, while at the same time prohibiting oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Would hunting for crude in a pristine wilderness be safer than in the Arctic Ocean?

Artist Jim Behlke came to the shrine that is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time almost 30 years ago. He was already steeped in its lore. Formally introduced by family friends to the vast wilderness at the top of the North American continent, he arrived having read Bob Marshall's "Arctic Village," a 1933 bestseller depicting life in Depression-era Wiseman, Alaska, near the southwest corner of the federal reserve. The book is a tribute to wild places. Two years after its first publication, Marshall helped found The Wilderness Society.

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR

Much would follow. More than 20 years later, the posthumous publication of another Marshall book -- "Alaska Wilderness, Exploring the Central Brooks Range” -- inspired some to call for creation of a "Gates of the Arctic National Park" in the Brooks Range of Alaska's north. And another 20 years after that, The Wilderness Society joined with other environmental organizations to lobby Congress to create not just Gates of the Arctic National Park, but a host of other new parks and refuges in the 49th state.

The year 1980 brought passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which preserved over 100 million acres of land in the state, in the process doubling the size of the national park system and transforming the 8.9-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 into the 19.3-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the country, a refuge the size of the state of South Carolina.

ANWR and spiritual worth

Environmentalists were at the time riding a national wave of support for turning much of Alaska into one, big, wild Disneyland of the North, but oil development begun at the height of the 1973 oil embargo continued to roll forward. In 1985 and 1986, BP and Chevron drilled a private inholding within the Arctic Refuge. This was the only well ever drilled in the refuge. Royal Dutch Shell, however, was drilling not far offshore to the north in the Beaufort Sea, as well as far to the west in the Chukchi Sea.

What BP and Chevron discovered before capping their well has never been publicly revealed. But both the oil industry and the state of Alaska lobbied hard to open ANWR to drilling in the late 1980s, saying they believed up to 16 billion barrels of oil could lurk beneath the surface of the refuge. Legislation to allow drilling was close to winning Congressional approval in 1989 when the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a rock in Prince William Sound and smeared coastal Alaska with 11 million gallons of crude oil. The legislation promptly died.

Six years later, Congress OK'd drilling, but the bill was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton, and Congress lacked the votes for an override. Fate was at play, too. There was a world oil glut. The need to drill the refuge seemed remote. Crude was down from a peak price of more than $60 a barrel to a third or less of that. Alaska, where oil development has always been costly, suddenly didn't look so attractive. The oil industry backed away from the Arctic Refuge. Environmentalists solidified their political grip.

ANWR (ANN-WHAR), as the refuge had become known, grew in status as America's "last great wilderness," and rightly so. There were and are no other, state-size tracts of unroaded, undeveloped land left in the United States. The heirs to the legacy of Marshall, Olaus Murie and the other great conservationists of an earlier time quickly dedicated themselves to the fight to keep ANWR this way forever as a reminder of the shape of America before wave after wave of hard-working immigrants altered the landscape.

They did their job so well that by the time the hunt for another major new oil find resumed in Alaska after the millennium, the effort focused on remote, difficult and hostile waters off the Arctic coast where there were no charismatic caribou to protect or overpowering scenery to preserve as in the temple of ANWR.

As writer Susan McGrath had observed in Audubon Magazine in May 1988, as the battle to open ANWR raged, environmentalists "articulated a philosophy in which wilderness was valued not just by scientific measures but for its aesthetic, even spiritual worth." She'd cogently seen what was coming. ANWR was destined to be more than a place to the environmental community. It was to become a holy shrine, its crusaders politically armed and socially motivated to defend it, even as the oil glut faded and the country became increasingly dependent on foreign oil; even as OPEC manipulated global oil prices to squeeze every last dollar out of non-oil-producing countries; even as Alaskans, oilmen and some politicians interested in energy said, "You know, there might be a goodly bit of oil beneath the Arctic coastal plain of ANWR.”

That observation only strengthened the resolve of those in the environmental community. There was never a thought of retreat. ANWR was their holy war. They'd drawn a line in the sand. The time had come. This was the place where they were going to ensure the masses stood up for the idea that not everything is about money. This was the place they were going to prove that Big Oil -- the biggest, most powerful piece of capitalist machinery in the nation -- couldn't always buy what it wanted.

Behlke understands as well as anyone the reasons why. ANWR, he said, is a special place. For a few short months each summer when millions of birds from all over the Americas and the 120,000 caribou of the Porcupine Herd jointly shared by Alaska and Canada invade the north slope of the refuge to breed, the area looks a lot like the "America's Serengeti" environmentalists have labeled it.

There is no solid evidence to indicate the Porcupine caribou would be harmed by oil development. The Western Arctic caribou herd has historically done well in and around the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. But the Gwich'in Indians on the north side of the Brooks Range believe oil would threaten the caribou, and that is enough. The Gwich'in depend on Porcupine caribou for food and were from the beginning of the ANWR days vocally opposed to oil development. Environmental organizations helped provide them an international megaphone. There are some who now believe drilling on the coastal plan of the Arctic -- far over the Brooks Range and out-of-sight from the Gwich'in -- would threaten their very survival as a culture.

Behlke isn't willing to go quite that far. He concedes there might be a possibility to drill the coastal plan without devastating the Porcupine herd. But drilling could possibly damage the herd, and he said that just adds to the reasons to preserve the area forever. It is a natural temple. Messing with it would be like turning an interior designer loose to modernize the Sistine Chapel.

'The last great wilderness’

With ANWR and the Brooks Range, in general, there's a clearness, a rawness that just hits you in the face," he said. "It's different from other places. It just really draws your attention. It's pristine. It's primitive. You have to be there to really appreciate it."

Behlke's paintings capture some of it for those who haven't visited ANWR. As a painter, he describes some of the colors of the country as "coming almost straight out of the tubes." He has relished both the refuge's beauty and its savagery.

"In 1986 some friends and I traveled to Porcupine Lake at the headwaters of the Ivishak River, to start a float trip, which would became one of my most memorable Brooks Range trips," he writes in describing a painting he titled "Arctic Fog." "The sources for this painting were produced a day before a phenomenal blizzard hit on August 10. About fifty miles away, at lower elevation at Toolik Lake, winds were recorded as high as 102 miles per hour. The temperature went down to five degrees and about a foot of snow dumped. For two days my friends and I huddled in our tents and wondered if the wind would rip the fabric apart. After the storm subsided, we dragged our boats over the snow and along a stream that led to the main river. It took several days to get our stuff about eight miles to the river. Since this was an early August trip, which is autumn in the northeast Brooks Range, I expected cold weather. I brought my white-gas stove-heated painting box, which was essential for the few small watercolor sketches I managed."

Behlke is not some wild-eyed greenie. He grew up in Fairbanks, the son of the dean of the School of Engineering and Mines at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which began life as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. He has spent time all over Alaska, and now lives in Anchorage.

Though the Exxon Valdez tanker grounded inside Prince William Sound and spilled its 11 million gallons of crude there in 1989, the oil escaped the Sound to tarnish the entire outer coast of the Kenai, parts of Cook Inlet and segments of Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.

In 2010, the 210-million-gallon Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico would dwarf the Exxon Valdez in terms of oil in the water, but the environmental consequences of the smaller spill in the cold marine environment of Alaska were greater: 250,000 dead seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. The Exxon spill underlined the inadequacy of marine clean-up capabilities, and little has changed since then.

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR

The damage from Deepwater was mitigated not by cleanup, but by the heavy use of chemical dispersants. The dispersants minimized the surface damage done to fish and wildlife after the BP spill, but the long-term consequences are still being debated. The debate could go on for decades. What everyone does agree on, however, is that oil in the water creates a nasty environmental mess. Behlke knows this.

And yet future oil development in Alaska appears headed for the marine waters off Alaska's Arctic coasts because Behlke, and legions of people in the Lower 48 like him, have stood steadfast in their support for preserving ANWR.

No matter how much the oil industry has argued that the "footprint" of development in ANWR would be small, no matter how many times Alaska politicians and business leaders have pointed out that ANWR is a frozen, snow-covered wasteland for much of the year, no matter the heights to which global oil prices have climbed, there has appeared no major crack in the defense of those defending "the last great wilderness."

Safer by land

On the surface, a rational choice between producing oil in ANWR instead of offshore in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas would appear a no-brainer. The Arctic oceans present what are arguably the planet's most hostile environments. Curtis Smith, an Alaska spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell, the global oil company spearheading exploration off Alaska's northern coast, has noted that in the job search for the world's best engineers, the company competes primarily with space exploration. It is a telling observation. Oil development in the constantly moving ice of the Arctic presents a Gordian knot of challenges, not unlike those faced in outer space.

And forget global warming. The Arctic ice pack might be shrinking, but as Shell learned this summer, drifting ice floes can quickly render that shrinkage irrelevant. Ice presents Shell and others all sorts of problems from the design of production platforms that will survive its pressure to the layout of onshore pipelines subject to threats from ice gouging to the nightmare question of how to clean up a spill. Clean up presents unique problems in that oil could end up on top of ice, trapped under ice, or caught in moving ice.

Because of the difficulties of cleanup, in fact, there appears consensus on the part of the oil industry, regulators and environmentalists alike that offshore drilling and oil production in the Arctic must be a fail-safe operation, much like a mission to the moon. The potential consequences of a spill, blowout or rupture of an undersea oil line are something no one really wants to contemplate.

No one much wants an onshore oil spill either. But it's equally clear the consequences there are not nearly so great.

On average more than an oil spill per day is now reported on the lands in and around Prudhoe Bay, the center for oil production on Alaska's North Slope, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Most of the spills are small, but some have amounted to more than 200,000 gallons. And yet, as much as the area has been disturbed by man with his roads, pipelines and spills, Prudhoe still supports healthy, functional ecosystems. There has never been a significant direct kill of fish or wildlife by oil at Prudhoe, and what damage has been done to the tundra from spills is difficult to measure.

The reasons are simple, starting with the fact the area is locked in ice and snow for eight months of the year. Oil spilled on a solid surface is a lot easier to clean up than that spilled in water. Think of this in terms of trying to wipe canola oil off your kitchen counter. But onshore cleanup isn't aided only because the ground is frozen and covered by snow most of the year. It is also helped by the fact most oil-producing facilities are surrounded by containment berms. The berms hold the oil in place instead of letting it ooze out across the tundra.

The system works to the benefit of both the environment and business. Had BP's Deepwater Horizon gusher spilled oil into a pit from which the company could vacuum it -- instead of into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico -- BP shareholders would be 210 million gallons richer, and the environment much better off. What happens when oil is in fact recovered, refined and turned into products that pollute the air is another matter -- one Americans and their political leaders seem reluctant to discuss as of this moment.

Out of sight, out of mind

No matter how oil development takes place, or where, one of the givens is that it involves tradeoffs, and aesthetically far more so on land than at sea.

An offshore oil rig 10 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico is over the horizon and invisible to someone standing on the white sand beaches of Alabama, at least in daylight. On a clear night, you might see a bit of light from gas flaming off above the rig. From Alaska's Chukchi Sea coast, not even that would be visible. Shell is drilling 70 miles offshore. For its rig to be visible from land, it would have to be well more than 1,000 feet high.

The same is not true for ANWR. Looking down from the North Slope of the Brooks Range, it is possible to see huge expanses of the coastal plain stretching out toward the Beaufort Sea. This is the area in which drilling was once proposed, and there is no doubt that to drill it would change a large part of the area around from wilderness to something else for decades.

"That country is small," Behlke said. "People don't understand. It funnels down there. It's pretty easy to see things. They (the oil industry) talk about 2,000 acres. I think that's it; 2,000 acres is what they say they'd occupy," but the construction on that 2,000 acres would affect much of the coastal plain of ANWR. At least temporarily, a significant part of ANWR would cease to be "the last great wilderness."

For however long the oil lasted, the coastal plain would become another Prudhoe Bay, a mini-Prudhoe maybe, but still a Prudhoe. That would kill the wildness, the spirituality if you will, of the valleys of the Canning, Hulahula, Jago, and other streams draining north off the mountains. Behlke has spent time on these rivers and in their valleys. He considers them special places. His art reflects that.

He is unabashedly supportive of preserving ANWR, though he understands why other Alaskans might feel differently. Everyone in the state knows that Alaska runs on oil, and the oil is running out of the state. Oil provides 90 percent of the revenue that supports the state. Where the money to fund government will come from when the oil ends nobody knows.

Alaskans are strongly opposed to an income tax. They appear significantly opposed to large-scale mining that might at least provide enough in royalties from state lands to help offset some of the decline in oil revenues. They've constitutionally limited the fishing industry to create a system that allows many of the best fishermen to make a living over the course of three months in the north and then retreat to the Lower 48 for the rest of year. They don't much like the tourism industry -- "too many gawkers!" -- which is itself somewhat difficult to tax.

Given these economic realities and political limitations, Alaska has to support oil development somewhere, and without ANWR, the best prospects left are offshore. Shell, Statoil and ConocoPhillips are all gearing up for possible production from beneath some of the most hostile waters on earth. If they find the vast quantities of oil they believe are in the Chukchi Sea, they plan to rip up 200 miles of wilderness to create a new pipeline to connect these oil finds to the existing trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Alaska likely won't net nearly the revenue on these federally managed offshore fields that it does from oil pumped from beneath state lands at Prudhoe, but the infrastructure will be taxable, the jobs will be well-paying, and the oil will keep the pipeline running. Much will change if this happens, too, but the changes will all happen out of sight of almost everyone. The northwest corner of Alaska is no less remote than the northeast corner, where sits ANWR. The entire Alaska Arctic is remote and basically out of sight from everyone but the handful of people who live there.

"Most will never see the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," McGrath admitted in Audubon Magazine back in 1988, with then-President George W. Bush pushing to drill the refuge and Congress on the verge of approving such drilling. "So why shouldn't we drill for oil there?"

It allowed McGrath to answer that question this way:

"Does the fact that there might be oil in the refuge justify industrializing this rare and precious place? Or, regardless of what's under it, shall we make the Arctic Refuge one of the few American places we keep entirely wild?"

No one ever asked the other question:

Are the benefits of preserving this rare and precious place worth the risks of drilling in the dangerous waters of Alaska's Arctic? It's a question that now might never be asked.

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com