One Guy, One Rifle and an Oil Pipeline

Bill McKibben, the author of "The End of Nature" (Anchor, 1999), is a visiting scholar at Middlebury College

It’s truly scary to imagine someone cooking up batches of anthrax and sending it through the mail. But the United States’ deepest vulnerability to terrorism may have been exposed earlier this month not by a mad scientist or a suicide bomber but by a single drunken hunter with a .338-caliber rifle.

On Oct. 4, according to police, Daniel Carson Lewis of Livengood, Alaska, shot a single hole into the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Because it was near the base of a long, gentle rise, strong pressure spewed 285,600 gallons of petroleum 75 feet into the air, saturating the tundra. The pipeline was shut for nearly three days as workers struggled to fix the leak.

Authorities quickly announced that Lewis was not a terrorist.


“It was just somebody being stupid with their gun,” a state police spokesman said. “Alcohol and a guy with a gun--nothing deeper than that.”

If that was meant to be reassuring, it had the opposite effect. One guy with a rifle could shut down the biggest U.S. oil pipeline, delaying 2.7 million barrels of crude? What if there had been half a dozen guys? What if they’d used something bigger than rifles?

And what if we had decided to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and doubtless for reasons of profound patriotism, the Alaska congressional delegation and the oil lobbyists have been demanding opening up the refuge for oil production as a matter of “national security.” They might as well paste a big “Kick Me” sign on Uncle Sam’s back.

If industry estimates of oil reserves are correct, the 800-mile pipeline would for a few years carry as much oil as now moves through the Strait of Hormuz. It’s hard enough to defend our oil supplies in the Mideast. It is impossible to imagine a fatter, or less defensible, terrorist target than the Alaska pipeline.

Unless, that is, one looks at the handful of natural gas pipelines that serve our East Coast. Or the two dozen refineries concentrated in Texas, Louisiana and California that process a huge percentage of the oil we use. Or the nuclear power plants that have failed time and again to repel teams of mock terrorists designed to test their security. (Air Force jets scrambled Wednesday night over Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant because of a “credible threat.”) Or the way that our own military planners have attacked centralized energy production plants and distribution grids in the Mideast, Serbia and now Afghanistan.

The classic study of U.S. vulnerability, “Brittle Power,” was carried out for the Pentagon by the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982. Its authors, Amory and Hunter Lovins, wrote at the time that “all of the energy sources being promoted as the backbone of American energy supplies in the 21st century are precisely those least suited to survive the uncertainty and violence that seems likely to characterize the future.” Amazingly, it’s these same centralized technologies that the Bush administration pushed for in last spring’s energy plan and continues to support.


The alternative, of course, is to take the money now used to subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear power and use it instead to jump-start the conversion to renewable energy sources, which by their nature are decentralized, flexible and unappealing to terrorists. Take, for example, wind power. It is already the fastest-growing power source on Earth, mostly because it’s environmentally benign. But now we know it’s a security asset as well. An enemy could knock out one windmill, but it wouldn’t spew radioactivity and it wouldn’t damage all the other windmills. No one is standing guard around the clock on their rooftop solar panel.

It’s a happy coincidence that clean power is also secure power. The sooner we get to work on it, the sooner we’ll be able to cross one item off our list of worries.