Fall of the Wild

Our appetite for oil threatens to devour Alaska’s North Slope.

This story appears in the May 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In the petroleum-rich wilderness Alaskans simply call “the slope,” big money, power politics, and hype run as thick as the mosquitoes. It is the wildest part of the wildest state, a Utah-size swath of tundra sweeping down from the Brooks Range to the shores of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. It is also one of the richest, both in wildlife and hydrocarbons. The sprawling oil fields surrounding Prudhoe Bay produce 16 percent of the United States’ domestic oil supply, along with a whopping 90 percent of Alaska’s state revenues. Some 15 million acres in the middle of the slope, including the lucrative oil fields, are owned by the state. Much of the rest, save for a few sizable parcels owned by the native Inupiat, belongs to you and me.

Most of our holdings are split between the scenic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the east, and the biggest single block of land in the federal estate, a 23-million-acre chunk of western Arctic known as the National Petroleum Reserve– Alaska, or NPRA. Though it sounds like a massive oil tank that the nation taps in times of need, in reality it contains the largest piece of unprotected wilderness in the nation, along with a half million caribou, hundreds of grizzlies, wolves, and in summer more waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds than anyone can count.

Biologists have argued for decades that areas of the petroleum reserve are more critical to wildlife than the actual wildlife refuge. But because it’s also believed to hide large deposits of oil, natural gas, and coal, federal and state biologists have been warned to hold their tongues. While the battle over drilling in the refuge raged in the U.S. Congress, the Bush Administration leased vast tracts of the petroleum reserve and offshore waters to the highest bidder, a process that could transform millions of acres of wilderness into oil and gas fields, and the Beaufort Sea into a frosty Gulf of Mexico. Some of those leases include critical habitat for the geese, caribou, and bowhead whales that have sustained the Inupiat for thousands of years. With substantial communal lands on the slope, the 5,000 Inupiat scattered among seven remote villages and the town of Barrow stand to become the newest oil barons of the 21st century. But in the process they may lose what makes them Inupiat. Many are none too happy about it.

No village feels more keenly the trade-offs of oil development than Nuiqsut, a cluster of about a hundred homes overlooking the Colville River on the eastern edge of NPRA. The village began as a collection of tents in 1973 when two dozen families from Barrow moved to their traditional hunting and fishing allotments by the great river after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. As is true of many of the tiny villages within the North Slope Borough, most of its residents now live in colorful cookie-cutter HUD houses and enjoy indoor plumbing, a diesel-fueled power plant to keep the lights and TVs on, a modern school, clinic, and fire trucks. Most are employed by the borough—benefits mostly funded by taxes on oil infrastructure.

For 20 years the industrial oil zone was out of sight, out of mind. But it’s been slowly creeping toward Nuiqsut. The newest oil field, Alpine, which began operation in 2000, is located on native and state land in the river’s braided delta eight miles downstream. ConocoPhillips originally touted it as a model of high-tech, lowimpact oil development with no permanent roads and the use of directional drilling to tap 40,000 acres beneath two drill sites that would disturb only 97 acres of tundra.

Then the drillers hit it big. Now five new satellite sites are under development. ConocoPhillips received an exemption from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to plop one drill pad in the middle of Nuiqsut’s subsistence hunting lands. The company wants to build a bridge over a branch of the Colville to another pad, right at one of the village’s ancestral fishing spots. With NPRA leases coming on line, Nuiqsut is practically surrounded by drill rigs, ice roads, and seismic teams during the long winter drilling season when heavy equipment can move around the tundra. The activity provides jobs for some in the village, but locals claim it’s also pushed the caribou away, forcing them to travel ten or twenty miles farther from home to find meat for the table. Though shareholders in the village corporation each received a dividend of about $3,000 from Alpine royalties last year, the consensus on the slope and in the village is that Nuiqsut got a raw deal.

“The town is so full of anger,” says Bernice Kaigelak, who teaches traditional Inupiat language and skills at the village school. “We’re trying to find a balance between subsistence and the Western way of living. There are some areas we don’t want them to trash, other areas we’d like them to use. I’ve come to the point that regardless of what we say or do, they’re going to come anyway. If you work with them, you have some control.”

Chester Hopson, a young hunter from the village, showed where the two worlds collide. With September temperatures hovering around freezing and winds whipping across the flat tundra, Hopson launched his 20-foot aluminum skiff into the wide pale-green river frothing with whitecaps. Chester’s cousin Anthony Hopson worked at Alpine and wanted to pick up his paycheck, so he, brother Andrew, and their friend Joe Frank Sovalik, all in their late teens and early twenties, came along for the ride.

Soon the skiff was screaming down the bumpy river as Hopson, cheeks beet red from the wind, deftly steered through the shoals. After a few miles, a gray rectangle of gravel rose on the right bank six feet or so above the tundra. Shipping containers were stacked on the pad, ready for drilling season in the coming winter.

A drill was boring away downstream at the next pad, rising like a rust red lighthouse amid a tawny sea. Anthony’s paycheck awaited in the office, so Chester nosed the boat onto a mudflat dotted with the odd grizzly and caribou track, and the young men hiked the remaining half mile across the spongy tundra. Behind them the vast coastal plain stretched without relief to the horizon. The scene was oddly beautiful, almost eerie, instilling an unsettling, yet exhilarating, feeling of endless emptiness. A solitary loon bobbing in the shallows was the sole reminder of this seasonal illusion. During the summer breeding season the Colville Delta teems with wild things, including rare yellow-billed loons and spectacled eiders, which are among the species threatened by oil development.

Walking up to the big drill pad, with its blazing lights, bustling trucks, and diesel hum of activity, on the other hand, was like coming out of the desert into Vegas—so incongruous, so starkly out of place that “satellite” seemed an apt description. The young men headed for the residence complex, kicked off their boots in the mudroom, and parked themselves at a table in the cafeteria while Anthony went for his check. Food is free on the rigs, so the men helped themselves to chips, sodas, and chicken-fried steaks. In winter they bring their mothers here every week for free prime rib or to play bingo. Despite the relative proximity of high-paying jobs, few Inupiat work in the oil fields. Many complain of the two-week shift work, of low-end jobs, or of discrimination. Anthony worked as an assistant fire-watcher—which he says is one of the most boring jobs on the planet.“You just sit and watch somebody weld and make sure nothing catches on fire.” Chester worked on the rigs for about six weeks, and hated it. Now he builds ice roads in winter for Nuiqsut’s native Kuukpik Corporation. A driller dropped by the table to tell the guys about a roustabout job on another rig, but there were no takers.

Back in the boat, Chester and his friends headed a few miles downstream to his grandmother Nanny Woods’s place, a rough plywood shack sitting on the crumbling riverbank. The door was banging open in the wind. The flotsam and jetsam of a typical Inupiat hunting camp lay strewn about: dead batteries, old cookstoves, rusting oil drums, and associated junk. This is their spot, the cousins say, their home away from home. Here they escape the growing pressures of Inupiat life, the constant buzz of four-wheelers, the incessant drone of TV, the boredom of the village, and just hunt, fish, and be free.

“The caribou herd used to come here,” Chester said. “Hardly does anymore now that this pipeline is here. Oil is a good thing for the jobs, but it changes things.”

“Man, I love it when the herd runs,” Joe Frank said. “You can feel it in the ground just like Dances With Wolves.”

There are other sounds now. They can hear the rig from here, the generators, the planes, the helicopters, and a garbage-truck-size vacuum cleaner—a “super-sucker”—for cleaning up spills. “OK,” I said, “pretend I’m ConocoPhillips. I’m offering each of you ten million dollars for this cabin and the land around it. Any takers?” To a man, each said no.

“How far will ten million take you?” Andrew asked. “You can go to Vegas and blow ten million dollars in a year. But can you still come out here? This place is priceless.”

“We get more from this place than money,” added Joe Frank.“The land feeds you. We’re rich as long as we’ve got the land.”

As they left the shack, one of the men pointed to a lone wooden marker jutting from the tundra. “See? Our grandpa George Woods. He’s buried over here.” One has to wonder if that old Inupiat knew when he picked that spot that one day he’d be listening to super-suckers for eternity, or at least until the oil runs out.

Today it’s the hunting lands of Nuiqsut. The next stop on the oil industry’s wish list—based on where it is putting its money—isn’t the coastal plain of ANWR, known by its government label as the 1002 Area. It’s Teshekpuk Lake. The largest freshwater body on the slope sits in the most controversial chunk of NPRA to go on the auction block, some 4.6 million acres known officially as the Northeast Planning Area. The lake and its swampy borders, laced with creeks and potholes, have long been considered one of the most important molting areas for geese and other birds in the Arctic. A third of the world’s black brant, for example, lose their flight feathers near the lake, along with tens of thousands of Canada geese, white-fronted geese, snow geese, and tundra swans. It’s also the calving grounds for some 45,000 caribou known as the Teshekpuk herd, which serves as a veritable meat locker for four villages. Up to a tenth of the herd ends up on Inupiat tables every year.

“Teshekpuk Lake is God’s country,” said former borough mayor George Ahmaogak, who owns two hunting camps in the area. “Everything can be had there—waterfowl, fish, caribou. We made a good effort to keep that area closed. Now the Bush Administration comes along and says make it all available for leasing.” In 1977 the Carter Administration initially designated the lake as one of three special areas within NPRA for its importance to wildlife, along with the bluffs by the Colville River, which are used by thousands of breeding peregrines, gyrfalcons, and rough-legged hawks, and the Utukok River uplands, calving grounds of the western Arctic caribou herd. That year and again in 1980, Congress instructed the secretary of the interior to ensure that any activity in these areas be conducted to “take every precaution to avoid unnecessary surface damage and to minimize ecological disturbance throughout the reserve.” Even Ronald Reagan’s famously antienvironmental secretary of the interior, James Watt, barred leasing on 200,000 acres north of the lake to protect the geese. When the Clinton Administration decided to open NPRA to oil exploration in the late 1990s, it commissioned an exhaustive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 4.6-million-acre northeast block. After numerous studies of caribou and geese and countless meetings with villages that depend on game from the area, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt expanded the protection to more than a half million acres, but opened the remaining 87 percent of the Northeast Planning Area to leasing.

Some of the hottest oil prospects, however, were in the protected 13 percent. A geologic formation known as the Barrow Arch runs near the lake, and almost every commercial oil discovery on the slope has been found within 20 miles of it. The Bush Administration decided to update the EIS, claiming the government had new information on mitigating the impacts on wildlife. Last January, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton opened the entire area to drilling, except the lake itself. The decision leaves only 6 percent of the coastal plain closed to oil exploration, the piece that lies within ANWR.

“In 1998 we came up with an agreement most of us could live with,” said Geoff Carroll, a longtime wildlife biologist who studies the Teshekpuk herd. “Then it was completely up-ended. Several studies since have reaffirmed the area’s importance as wildlife habitat. The only new information was BLM’s assumption that there’s more oil there than originally thought. All the emphasis and debate has been on ANWR. To me it’s a big distraction as they sweep into this area that is just as important biologically as 1002.”

Part of the dilemma now facing the North Slope and its residents is the permanency of the decisions being made here, largely out of view of the rest of the nation. Oil infrastructure in the Arctic is a bit like the scar you got on the playground as a kid. It may fade, but it never goes away. Take a look at a couple of old wells on a ridge overlooking the storied oil camp of Umiat, a hundred miles upstream of Nuiqsut. It was here in the 1940s and early 1950s that the Navy drilled the first test wells in what was then called Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, established by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 as an emergency supply for the military. Umiat’s large remote airstrip was later used as a flag stop for airplanes flying from Fairbanks to Barrow, and as a base for seismic crews who scoured NPRA in great cat-train expeditions during the 1970s and 1980s. Umiat now holds two dubious distinctions: It’s one of the coldest places in the U.S. (average temperature is 10.8˚F), and it’s the site of a multimillion-dollar toxic cleanup.

A rusting fuel tank and a Christmas tree of valves mark Umiat Well Number 9 near the top of the ridge. From here, on a good day, you can see forever. In the distance the land rises in green plateaus and long benches all the way to the rugged Brooks Range to the southeast, while the broad valley of the Colville River opens like a gentle fold in the earth, slowly ascending on one bank to the 800-foot bluff known as Umiat Mountain. It’s easy to forget that the military once left thousands of barrels of oil, diesel, DDT, and PCB to rot here. One morning, in bone-chilling rain, six peregrine falcons soared like stealth bombers along that bluff, hunting for the hapless gosling or rodent to feed their hungry chicks. The bluffs along the river provide some of the most important nesting areas in the Arctic for the species.

It’s rugged, beautiful, wide-open country, essentially unchanged since woolly mammoths roamed these steppes. It’s difficult to imagine it full of pipes, pump stations, and gravel roads. Yet somewhere beneath those foothills lie an estimated 100 million barrels of light, sweet crude— and an estimated 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to satisfy the current demand in the U.S. for three years. The camp at Umiat was busy with oil-field geologists and other experts in advance of the next anticipated lease sale in NPRA and the intensive seismic work scheduled for the winter. And federal agencies are still trying to clean up the contaminated soils at Umiat, nearly 60 years after the Navy drilled it.

On a bitter September day with snow blowing horizontally off the Beaufort Sea, BP engineer Scott Digert pointed to an odd steel sculpture rising from the industrialized tundra of Prudhoe Bay. “That’s the discovery well,” he shouted to a small group of journalists over the howling wind—the last of a dozen exploratory wells drilled in the 1960s. The first 11 were dry holes, but on the last one ARCO and Humble Oil (now Exxon) hit pay dirt: the largest oil reservoir yet found on the continent. The historic well is now topped by a 15-foot-high ARCO trademark, which Digert explained represents a spark inside a circle, but which looks more like giant crosshairs. Though the company merged with BP in 2000, Digert, a former ARCO man, couldn’t help but beam. “Some of us former ARCO employees are pretty proud of that,” he said.

Back in ’68 Prudhoe was even more remote than Umiat. What started as one drill site covering 65 acres has now sprawled across a thousand square miles with 19 producing fields and 1,860 miles of pipeline, transforming a stretch of tundra the size of Yosemite into one of the largest industrial complexes on the globe. The original find was estimated at 9.6 billion barrels. Prudhoe has already produced 10 billion barrels, and BP and its partners hope to squeeze out several billion more, perhaps extending the field’s life for another 50 years.

But the end of oil is in sight. The TransAlaska Pipeline System, or TAPS, which transported more than two million barrels a day in 1988, is down to 900,000 barrels a day and dropping 3 percent a year. Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski is clamoring to build a new pipeline to transport the slope’s vast reservoir of natural gas to markets in the Midwest and to keep the state’s coffers brimming, but so far that remains a pipe dream. Each day Prudhoe produces more gas than Canada burns in a day—some eight billion cubic feet—which is currently reinjected into the oil reservoir to keep the pressure up and the dwindling supply of oil flowing. If the gas pipeline gets approved, it will be one of the largest private construction projects the world has ever seen and will likely change the face of the slope forever.

For now, BP spokesman Daren Beaudo explained that his company is out of the exploration game on the North Slope. Instead BP is focusing on using the latest technology to squeeze every last drop out of the known formations at Prudhoe, including the estimated 23 billion barrels of heavy viscous oil that remains largely untapped.

At a new state-of-the-art well pad, with some 35 wells clustered together in small beige sheds, veteran operator Dan Hejl broke away from the hum of computers in the control room to open a small tap in one of the sheds out back. He poured about a liter of oil into a plastic container. It looked like a slightly thicker version of Guinness stout, with a gas station bouquet. “Smells like money,” Hejl said.

It’s hard not to be impressed by what hard work, technology, and an unseemly amount of money has carved out in one of the harshest environments on the globe. But the impacts are equally impressive. In March a corroded BP pipeline caused the largest oil spill in North Slope history—estimated at more than 200,000 gallons —one of hundreds of spills that occur there each year. Giant turbines scream day and night, pumping out more of some air pollutants than Washington, D.C. Perhaps most troubling, there are no plans to clean up the place when the oil and gas are gone. A 2003 report by the National Research Council concluded that because of exorbitant cost and lax oversight, most of the tundra will never be restored—making the stakes in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge all the higher.

“At this point, the decision to open ANWR has moved into the realm of politics,” Beaudo said. “It needs to be decided by the American people. We’re not going to try to influence that.”

At least not anymore. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to open up the 1002 Area of ANWR to drilling, BP and other big oil companies have pulled out of the most vocal lobbying group, known as Arctic Power. Perhaps they believe it’s time to move to the sidelines. Or perhaps it’s just that the holes they’ve drilled near the refuge have been disappointing, while the holes drilled toward NPRA, with less political pitfalls, have paid off big-time.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be the only spot on the entire North Slope where the American public hasn’t acted like absentee landlords. The folks of the village of Kaktovik, which sits on the coast just north of the refuge, bristle at this notion, because long before it was deemed “the last great wilderness” by conservationists in the 1950s, it was simply their backyard, where they fished, hunted, and camped. Their ancestors’ footprints are all over it, and they named every bend of the river, every mountain, every fishing hole. Wilderness, to Kaktovik, implies no people.

The village of almost 300, however—which owns nearly 100,000 acres of potentially petroleum-rich lands within ANWR—has long supported drilling in the refuge, putting villagers at odds with the Gwich’in south of the Brooks Range, who also depend on the Porcupine caribou herd that summers and calves along the coastal plain. The Inupiat are well aware from where the money, the jobs, the school, the power plant, and, just recently, the flush toilets came. With a rancorous debate in Congress under way, journalists from around the world descended on the tiny village last summer, leaving Mayor Lon Sonsalla feeling besieged.

“We want the same thing everybody else wants,” said Sonsalla, a former Wisconsin farmer who came up north in search of work, fell in love, and stayed. “A better life for your kids and their kids. You want to be able to control your destiny somewhat. Officially, the town is still in favor of responsible onshore development. Can we stand up to the beast? They’ll have to mind their p’s and q’s here.”

Unofficially, the village seems utterly torn over the issue. Robert Thompson is one of the growing number of residents ardently opposed to oil development in the refuge. A wilderness guide who takes rafters down the shallow, gravelly rivers that tumble from the Brooks Range, Thompson recently circulated a petition against drilling and collected 58 signatures. That’s significant, he said, since only 98 people voted in the last election.

“The governor of Alaska says we’re doing this for the people of Kaktovik, because he doesn’t want us to live like a third-world country,” Thompson said from his easy chair, which was surrounded by guns, bows, and assorted outdoor gear. “We didn’t get the benefits of oil money until after Anchorage got a hundredmillion-dollar performing arts center. Twentyeight years after oil production began, we just got off honey buckets. Go take a good look at that toilet. That’s a million-dollar toilet right there. Most of the North Slope officials advocating for oil development have spent more time in Hawaii than in the refuge.”

Surprisingly, all the arguing between prodrilling groups and environmentalists over just how much oil actually underlies the refuge— and whether it’s worth destroying its renowned wilderness character—is based on a scant amount of actual hard data. No fewer than eight different assessments of the area’s oil potential have been made by various state or federal agencies since 1986, with numbers all over the map. Almost all are primarily based on a two-dimensional seismic survey done by the industry in the early 1980s. In the most recent study done by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1998, that data was recrunched in faster computers with the findings from a handful of new wells drilled along the refuge’s periphery thrown in for good measure. That estimate gave the refuge a 95 percent chance of containing 4.3 billion barrels and a 5 percent chance of containing 11.8 billion barrels, with a mean estimate of 7.7 billion. The oil is now thought to lie in some 35 relatively small deposits scattered mostly in the western section of the 1002 Area, a contention contradicting USGS’s stance in 1986, when most of the oil was thought to lie in the eastern section.

“Trying to estimate the amount of oil or gas is a highly uncertain business,” says USGS’s Kenneth Bird, a project leader for the 1998 study. “That’s why we report our results in terms of probabilities. The wide range from high to low is reflective of the uncertainty.”

The only way to know for sure what’s in a formation is to drill it, and that’s just what a consortium led by Chevron did over the winters of 1985 and 1986, on a sliver of land within the refuge owned by the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation. The company drilled more than 15,000 feet into one of the most promising formations in the refuge—a large geologic “trap” that, if full of oil, would rival those beneath Saudi Arabia. That well, known as KIC-1, was a “tight hole,” oil-speak for super secret. Ever since, Chevron and the others have closely guarded the results of that well.

But KIC-1 was ultimately a disappointment, say anonymous sources familiar with the well data. The most exciting discovery, the sources said, was found just below the permafrost when they hit a layer they thought was oil but turned out to be hydrate—likely a form of frozen methane ubiquitous in the Arctic. Hydrate has been touted as one of the fuels of the future, but the technology doesn’t exist to tap it. KIC-1, perhaps the most famous Alaska well since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe, is just another dry hole in the tundra.

One test well, of course, doesn’t characterize an entire field—11 dry holes were drilled before they found Prudhoe—but it might explain why oil companies wanted to keep the bad news out of the highly charged political debate. When asked for comment, a Chevron spokesman would only say,“We don’t make announcements about what we’ve found. This is a highly competitive business, and we’ve chosen to keep the information on that well proprietary.”

Drilling proponents, like Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Governor Frank Murkowski, have long painted the coastal plain as a bleak, frozen wasteland good for little but reducing—however slightly—our dependence on foreign oil.

It’s an argument that makes noted wildlife biologist George Schaller, who helped conduct one of the early wildlife surveys in the refuge, shake his head. “It is the ultimate in patriotism to leave future generations what the past reveres,” he said. “Drilling in ANWR is just ecological vandalism. You have the landscape of 10,000 years compared with Prudhoe Bay, which has the landscape of New Jersey. What kind of society do we have that would destroy that for future generations for a few more gallons of gas?”

Some industry observers speculate that the oil companies aren’t as interested in drilling ANWR as they are in placing pipelines and other infrastructure there to tap the massive fields thought to lie beneath the Beaufort Sea. So far, the prohibitive cost and high risks of developing such fields amid the Arctic ice have kept the oil companies close to shore. But with oil prices climbing and Arctic ice melting, it may soon be profitable to put those fields in play.

Offshore drilling has long been the Inupiat’s greatest fear. Even oil company officials admit that there is no known technology for cleaning up an oil spill in the broken ice conditions that occur in spring and fall—coincidentally when some 10,000 bowhead whales are migrating just offshore. The annual spring and fall bowhead hunts and communal sharing of the whale meat have become the cultural backbone of the Inupiat in the face of the onslaught of westernization. And a spill in an area where the base of the food chain—phytoplankton and marine algae— depends on sunlight filtering through the ice could devastate the Arctic ecosystem for decades.

Bush pilot Pat Valkenburg, a retired biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, banked his little beige Super Cub low and slow over a rough square of tundra a few hundred feet below. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a steel pipe poking up from the tundra. “The only test well ever drilled in ANWR. Doesn’t look like much does it?” I had to agree. We’d spent the past three hours flying over some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth: The Beaufort Sea, looking like an endless white sheet cake, trimmed in cobalt blue; the buff brown tundra of coastal plain, dotted with caribou; the rolling foothills rising into the mighty Brooks Range, sparkling in the sky like the Emerald City of Oz. This, though mind-blowingly beautiful, was what I expected.

But it was that pesky little pipe that seemed to symbolize the ultimate choice of a nation: Whether to leave one corner of the wildest state the way it has been for millennia, or to leave no patch of tundra unturned to meet our insatiable desire for oil.

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