For Alaska, the Pipeline Has Paid Off : Quarter of U.S. Oil Generated From Arctic as Fears Subside

Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago, the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline carried its first barrel of oil from these frozen wastelands of the far north to the ice-free port of Valdez, 800 miles south. It was a journey that would transform Alaska into the Texas of the Arctic.

The $8-billion pipeline--the most expensive privately financed construction project in history--had been bitterly opposed in Congress and the courts by what Alaskans called the "greenies" (environmentalists) and fervently supported by the "boomers" (those favoring development). Both sides could agree on only one point, that tapping North America's richest oil field would create a bonanza, the biggest Alaska had known since the Nome gold rush of the 1890s.

Congressional approval to construct the pipeline finally came in November, 1973, while the nation was in the grip of the Arab oil embargo. More than 70,000 construction workers poured into the state. Salaries for drillers reached $90,000 a year; kitchen helpers earned $40,000.

Eventually, when the Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Lisburne fields north of the Arctic Circle came on line, oil royalties would soar to constitute 90% of Alaska's income, making Alaska richer on a per-capita basis than any state.

Off to Rough Start

"If God had to put oil some place on this earth, thank God he put it in Prudhoe Bay and not on Main Street in Los Angeles," Walter Hickel, a former governor and U.S. secretary of the interior, said. Hickel is now an Anchorage businessman and developer.

Since June, 1977, the pipeline has carried more than 5 billion barrels of North Shore oil--about 2 million a day--over three mountain ranges and across 800 streams and rivers to the port at Valdez, then on to the "Lower 48" via tankers. The North Shore now accounts for a quarter of the nation's total oil production and, although conservationists remain concerned about the long-term effects of development here on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, there is a consensus that the dire environmental consequences predicted a decade ago have not been realized.

"The things we did at Prudhoe Bay proved to be good and they've gotten better as the oil fields evolved," said Jim Weeks, field manager for Arco Alaska, Inc. "I don't know of any area here that has been permanently damaged by a spill, or any caribou that has died because of the pipeline. The lesson in all this is that development and the environment can coexist in harmony."

For a while it did not look as though that would be the case at all.

Even before the first tanker was loaded a Valdez, the pipeline had to be shut down briefly when cracks were discovered in the pipe at a pumping station near Fairbanks. Four days later, on July 8, 1977, an explosion attributed to human error killed one worker and injured five at another pumping station. On July 19, a construction truck hit a valve on the pipeline, causing a 42,000-gallon oil spill, and a few days after that a series of explosions set by saboteurs damaged 60 feet of installation brackets along the pipeline.

The mishaps followed a state report that said mismanagement and poor planning had caused the original estimate for the project to skyrocket from $900 million to $8 billion. "Quite clearly there are chinks in our armor," the president of the pipeline company, William D. Darch, told reporters as the mammoth storage tanks at Valdez began filling. He went on to promise that the pipeline operation would be so safe and so routine that, "I am sure you will lose interest in our operations."

The worst incident since then happened on Feb. 15, 1978, when saboteurs blew a hole in the pipeline, resulting in a spill of half a million gallons. But Darch's prediction was not far off the mark and the most heated environmental controversy of the 1970s has become something of a non-issue in 1987.

Pressured Oil Companies

No wells have blown out nor have any major pipelines been ruptured. Of the thousands of spills recorded by the state since 1977, including about 500 last year, most have been small and have occurred on gravel roads or drilling pads, which protect the fragile ecosystem of the tundra. The effects on wildlife, the marine ecology and Arctic vegetation thus far have been minimal.

"In the fervor of the controversy, people talked about total destruction and that wasn't realistic," said Brad Fristoe, an environmental engineer with the Alaska Department of the Environment.

"But I think the environmental arguments put pressure on the oil companies that forced them to make concessions and look for ways to prevent harm. What really hasn't been looked at, though, is what the long-term, chronic effects of development are going to be."

Richard Shideler, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the effects of the pipeline--which is static and cannot grow--are less significant than those of the oil fields, which are still developing and expanding.

"It's premature for people to say there's been no impact when we've only seen less than half the development that is planned," he said. The caribou herd, for instance, has increased fivefold since 1972 around Prudhoe Bay, and it is a common here to see the animals grazing in the shadows of oil rigs, walking under the elevated pipeline and trotting through the parking lot of Arco's operations center. Yet there is concern because most of the animals here are bulls and calving has been displaced to other areas with less human activity.

Conservationists are also concerned that there will be eventual cumulative repercussions from North Shore production. What long-range damage, they ask, will result from toxic wastes produced in drilling and held in huge pits? From the turbines that run the production facilities? From the power plant at Prudhoe Bay that could light a city of 75,000 inhabitants? From continued spills, no matter how small?

Abundant With Wildlife

"Development was initiated before there was adequate technology to protect a rather fragile environment," said Bob Adler, executive director of Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm in Anchorage. "The oil industry has made some strides to improve the situation, but there are still significant problems to solve."

The environmental effects of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. (a separate company owned by eight oil companies) and of Prudhoe Bay drilling by a partnership of 12 oil companies (largely controlled by Standard Alaska Production Co. and Arco) have come under renewed scrutiny recently because of the Reagan Administration's proposal to open up a nearby wildlife refuge to oil and gas exploration.

Located about 100 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, the 18-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a largely inaccessible wilderness abundant with caribou, polar bears, wolves and 108 species of birds.

Some preliminary studies have indicated that the area may contain more oil than the North Slope, although a draft report issued by the Reagan Administration says that there is only one chance in five that any reserves would be "economically recoverable" if oil were selling for $33 a barrel. (The current price is less than $19.) The Administration wants to open up 1.5 million of the refuge's acres for exploration and possible development.

"One of the real values of Alaska is not just the wildlife, but the wilderness," said Cliff Eames, issues director for the Alaska Center for the Environment in Anchorage. "Until you get out hiking, even the most avid outdoorsman in the Lower 48 can't imagine what it's really like to be in the Alaska wilderness. If we want to preserve the wilderness character of Alaska, ANWR is an issue we really can't compromise on."

Ground Protected

The oil companies reply that the technology they have developed for the Arctic conditions of the North Slope--where the sun never rises for 56 days in midwinter and temperatures drop so low that steel will shatter on impact--has proved that development is compatible with wildlife and the environment. They say further that the Prudhoe Bay reserves will soon begin their natural decline and that unless new fields are found, the nation's oil reserves will have dropped by 60% by the year 2000.

At Prudhoe, gravel pads are used as drill sites for development wells and buildings are placed on pilings to prevent heat from being transferred to the underlying permafrost, the permanently frozen ground that extends 1,800 feet beneath the tundra. To minimize surface disturbance and the need for roads, wells are drilled at an angle and in clusters, with computers directing the drills into the earth.

An elaborate system of safety valves enables engineers to shut down production in the event of an emergency. Thirty-nine microwave and four satellite communications stations link the pumping stations with the oil fields and the marine terminal at Valdez.

One of the most important alterations to the original Alyeska construction plan was to elevate most of the pipeline on five-foot-high braces, rather than to bury it all. A buried pipeline, carrying oil heated to 160 degrees, would have melted the permafrost and caused lasting damage to the earth and all that depends on it, conservationists say. The sight of the 48-inch pipeline snaking through the Alaska wilderness has become a major tourist attraction--and a reminder of all that is changing in this most sparsely populated and most isolated of the American states.

"I think the pipeline itself is working out OK," said Art Davidson, who fought North Shore development a decade ago as a member of Friends of the Earth. "But to me that's not the real issue.

"Alaska is still beautiful, still big. The caribou aren't going to disappear. The polar bear won't disappear. But with the development of Alaska, so much has been lost, just in the character of the country alone. The sad thing is that you really don't notice what slips away until it's gone."

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