Pamela A. Miller

Arctic Connections


There is about a spill a day at Prudhoe Bay. The Prudhoe Bay oil fields and Trans-Alaska Pipeline have caused an average of 409 spills annually on the North Slope since 1996 (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation spill database 1996-1999). Roughly 40 different substances from acid to waste oil are spilled during routine operations. Over 1.3 million gallons spilled between 1996 and 1999, most commonly diesel and crude oil. Diesel fuel is acutely toxic to plant life.

A study of diesel spills in Alaska's arctic found that 28 years later there were still substantial hydrocarbons in the soil and little vegetation recovery. The Exxon Valdez studies show petroleum hydrocarbons pose higher risks to fish and wildlife than previously known and that there is long-lasting ecological damage. Prudhoe Bay is a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The oil industry on Alaska's North Slope annual emits approximately 56,427 tons of oxides of nitrogen, which contributes to smog and acid rain. This is more than twice the amount emitted by Washington, DC (EPA National Air Pollutant Emissions Trends1900-1998, 2000). North Slope oil facilities release roughly 24,000-114,000 tons of methane, a greenhouse gas. Substances associated with Prudhoe Bay drilling operations, natural gas facilities, and incinerators were detected in accumulated snow in the area. Despite improvements in drilling waste disposal techniques over the years, problems remain: During horizontal drilling of the Colville River pipeline crossing for Arco's Alpine field, 2.3 million gallons of drilling muds disappeared under the river in 1998. It is unknown where they ended up and if they will ultimately pollute Alaska's largest arctic river. At Endicott, contractors for British Petroleum illegally disposed of hazardous drilling wastes containing benzene and other toxics for at least three years until a whistleblower came forward. Some of the waste reached the surface and workers were exposed to hazardous fumes. In February 2000, BP was ordered to pay $15.5 million in criminal fines and to implement a new environmental management program, and to serve 5-years probation for its failure in reporting the dumping. BP also paid $6.5 million in civil penalties. Its contractor pled guilty to 15 counts of violating the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and paid a $3 million fine. A huge cleanup job remains across the North Slope.

For example: Hundreds of old exploratory and production drilling waste pits have yet to be closed out and the sites restored. More than 55 contaminated sites associated with the oil industry exist on the North Slope (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation). Many gravel pads are contaminated by chronic spills. Oil companies will not re-use gravel from many abandoned sites due to concerns about contamination. Although there have been some pilot studies of rehabilitation techniques for gravel pads in the arctic oil fields, the technical or economic feasibility of restoring the tens of thousands of acres of roads and drilling sites has yet to be proven.

Industrial Sprawl

Proponents of drilling in the Arctic Refuge point to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields as an example that development would not harm the environment. Consider these facts:

Since the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery in 1968, the oil industry has dramatically transformed a vast arctic wilderness. Prudhoe Bay and 18 other producing oil fields sprawl over more than 1,000 square miles of America's Arctic-- an area the size of Rhode Island. Today the North Slope oil fields include 3,893 exploratory and producing wells, 170 production and exploratory drill pads, 500 miles of roads, 1,100 miles of trunk and feeder pipelines, 2 refineries, many airports, many camps with living quarters for hundreds of workers, 5 docks and gravel causeways, and a total of 25 production plants, gas processing facilities, seawater treatment plants, and power plants. Many impacts exceed the Interior Department's predictions in a 1972 Trans-Alaska Pipeline EIS. Gravel mines extracted 400% more gravel. Oil companies drilled five times more wells. Road mileage was double. Gravel pads for drilling and oil facilities were predicted to cover 2,155 acres, but such infrastructure fills three times the area. Drilling proponents say that impacts will be small due to technological improvements. Despite advancements, there are unavoidable impacts from the latest North Slope oil development.

The industrial network continues to expand across the landscape each year with new drilling pads, roads, pipelines, processing plants, and other facilities and operations that add to the cumulative impact. Technological advances have reduced the size of individual drilling pads and some roads, but oil development unavoidably involves construction of many permanent industrial facilities and noisy operations spread across vast expanses of the landscape. No matter how well done, oil development would industrialize a unique, wild area that is the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge. Industry focuses attention on the direct "footprint" where facilities will be built but ignores the secondary and cumulative impacts of the industrial network on wildlife habitats.

For example: Roughly 22,000 acres of tundra wetlands, floodplains, and other habitats have been directly lost due to the oil fields and Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. But the impacts to wildlife and their tundra habitats extend well beyond the sites of constructed facilities. A study of major landscape impacts due to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Science found that secondary effects such as hydrological changes to wetlands lagged behind construction and the total area eventually disturbed greatly exceeded direct impacts. "The extent of disturbance greatly exceeds the physical "footprint" of an oil-field complex," according to caribou biologists Nellemann and Cameron (1998). Many studies recorded decreased caribou densities within 4-km of pipelines and roads and regional changes in calving distribution for the Central Arctic Herd at Prudhoe Bay. Prudhoe Bay air emissions have been detected nearly 200 miles away in Barrow, Alaska.