Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Black Gold On the Last Frontier

March 24, Prince William Sound, Alaska, U.S.

Mandy Lindberg kneels down on the stony beach on Knight Island, in Alaska's Prince William Sound, and begins digging. The land around her is some of the most beautiful in the U.S. Snow-capped mountains, their flanks lush with hemlock and spruce, thrust out of the glacier-fed waters of the sound. Pale Arctic terns and endangered Kittlitz's Murrelets skim the etched shoreline. To the northwest, fishing boats are setting out their gill nets, readying for the sockeye salmon's run. But as she turns her shovel on the beach, Lindberg uncovers a scar on the sound's seemingly pristine face: a pool of watery crude oil, chemical sheen glistening, fills in the hole. Search elsewhere on the beach, and on other islands in the sound, and you'll find more, just beneath the surface. The oil is the last remnant of the crude spilled on March 24, 1989, by a tanker named Exxon Valdez that ran aground just after midnight while on its way out to sea with 53 million gallons (200 million liters) of Alaskan oil on board; according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about 20,000 gallons (76,000 liters) still remain buried on beaches around the sound. "At the initial time of the cleanup, we really thought this would be a one-shot deal," says Jeep Rice, the NOAA scientist who led the study, as he stands on the beach, which was nicknamed Death Marsh during the cleanup. "We had no idea there would be lingering oil."

Then again, a lot of oil — and a lot of printer's ink — was spilled because of the accident. The Exxon Valdez was at the time considered to be the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, and news of it reverberated around the world. America's last true wilderness had been violated. At least 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude bled into the water when the tanker struck Bligh Reef near the port town of Valdez, the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. For months after the grounding, large swaths of the sound and its islands were coated with a foul layer of crude. Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds were killed within weeks; a productive fishing industry was damaged for years. Americans were horrified by images of oil-covered sea otters and other wildlife. A New York judge compared the spill to Hiroshima; the captain of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, who was not in the wheelhouse at the time of the accident, was tried on felony charges (he ultimately was convicted of a misdemeanor and fined $50,000). "It was a bad, bad time," says Stan Stephens, a veteran tour-boat operator in Valdez. "People can't even talk about it without getting emotional."

Yet as shocking as the accident was, especially for Alaskans whose livelihoods suffered, its long-term impact on the U.S. more than two decades later can seem all but invisible, like those last pockets of oil trapped beneath the beach. Although the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 passed in the accident's immediate wake led to local improvements in shipping crude — like a mandatory shift to double-hulled tankers — spills still occur in the U.S., most recently in a 2007 accident in the San Francisco Bay that released 58,000 gallons (220,000 liters) of crude. While the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in 1979 halted the nuclear industry in the U.S., the Prince William Sound disaster did nothing to break America's reliance on oil. Americans today are consuming 2 million more barrels of oil a day than they did in 1989. "I was hoping for a huge shift in philosophy afterwards," says Riki Ott, a biologist and fisherman from the sound who wrote a 2008 book on the spill entitled Not One Drop. "But it hasn't worked that way yet."

The notion that Alaska was unspoiled until the Exxon Valdez accident never fit with reality, though. Vast tracts of America's Arctic northwest are sparsely populated wilderness, true, but the state has been a petroleum producer since crude was discovered in south-central Alaska's Kenai Peninsula in 1957. Today, Alaska disgorges 5 million barrels of oil a day, second only to Texas in the U.S., and the Prudhoe Bay field on the state's North Slope — the source of the crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez — is the biggest in the country. Alaska is almost as much a petro-state as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Taxes and other proceeds from oil and natural-gas production generate 84% of government revenues. "In many ways, Alaska is oil," says state lawmaker Bryce Edgmon.

But Alaska is also the "last frontier," and this leaves many of the state's residents conflicted: they revel in the wealth oil brings, but fear its environmental toll. It's a conflict that in many ways mirrors the world's current dependence on petroleum at a time when the burning of fossil fuels is putting the planet on a path to catastrophe. Indeed, Alaska is becoming a test case to determine how people choose between oil-driven prosperity and environmental health. The clock is ticking: the giant reservoir of crude beneath Prudhoe Bay is quickly being pumped dry. Alaska's oil production has declined 38% over the past decade, and there are concerns that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which now carries half as much oil as it did at its peak, might not be viable in the near future unless new supplies are brought online.

There's a lot more crude out there. An estimated 27 billion barrels of oil are believed to lie beneath the state's southwestern Bering Sea and the ice-choked Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska's North Slope. But are Americans willing to pay the price to get it? Drilling offshore in these wild waters poses an environmental risk. A loose coalition — greens who fear for endangered species like the polar bear, fishermen who worry about what another major spill could do their livelihood, Alaskan natives defending their traditional lifestyle — is fighting to keep offshore oil off-limits. It's a battle, fought from the tundra of the North Slope to the federal courts of Washington, for the future of the state — and with 13% of the world's remaining undiscovered oil believed to lie in Arctic regions, it's a battle that will likely be waged again and again in the decades ahead as the global economy moves from an era of abundant oil to one of relative scarcity. "We know from the legacy of the Exxon Valdez what's at stake here," says Rick Steiner, a marine conservationist with the University of Alaska. "The Arctic is going to be a very interesting place from now on in."

Oil on the Rocks
I'm flying over bristol bay in south-central Alaska in a six-seat Piper Aztec E, and am trying very hard not to throw up. The wind buffeting our plane gusts at over 37 m.p.h. (60 km/h) — which the pilot Theo Colson explains "is really nothing around here." Fed by the rich waters of the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay is the most valuable commercial fishery in the U.S., producing more than $2 billion annually in king crab, herring and salmon. Northern right whales and other rare marine mammals depend on the bay; passing over one stretch of coastline we see a herd of walruses a thousand strong. As we near our destination, a former Air Force base named Cold Bay, Colson points out the expanse of churning water that the U.S. Department of the Interior aims to lease for offshore oil-and-gas development. Like most people in the Bristol Bay area, Colson is a part-time fisherman and he worries that a spill, or just the impact of new oil-and-gas production infrastructure, could damage the fish. "Oil is the biggest concern in our minds," says Colson. "One weak link could bring this whole area down. I'm not an environmentalist, but I do give a s___ about the land."

Over 800 miles (1,300 km) away in the town of Barrow — the northernmost point in the U.S. — Edward Itta holds the same concerns, though he expresses them less scatologically. Itta is the mayor of the North Slope Borough, a 88,750-square-mile (142,000 sq km) stretch of tundra hard by the iceberg-laden Beaufort Sea. They've long welcomed oil development on the North Slope — the Prudhoe Bay field is 200 miles (320 km) east of Barrow — and revenue from fossil-fuel development has supplied what would otherwise be economically barren towns and villages with modern hospitals, SUVs and satellite TVs. The Inupiat natives, who make up most of the 8,000 people who live on the North Slope, have inhabited this region for thousands of years, and they still practice a traditional way of life that centers on semiannual hunts for bowhead whales. The ocean is their garden, the saying goes, and many Inupiat fear that putting clanging, dirty oil rigs in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas will drive away the whales and destroy what's left of their culture. "A risk to the whale is a risk to us," says the soft-spoken Itta. "This has been too much, too soon, too fast."

The Inupiat and the fishermen of Bristol Bay fear offshore oil development would inevitably lead to a spill, and that cleaning it up would be virtually impossible. They remember the assurances that Exxon gave to the people of Prince William Sound that such a thing was unlikely to happen, and they remember the sluggish, confused cleanup effort, the years of bad fishing returns and the nightmarish images of oil-coated beaches. Cleaning up a spill is harder in cold water — the oil disperses much more slowly — and organizing a rapid response to a major accident in the remote Arctic would be like nothing the industry has faced. "I've been on icebreakers and I know the area," says Thomas Lohman, a lawyer with the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management. "No one can assure me that you can properly armor offshore facilities there to make them work."

To Shell, the multinational oil company that has taken the lead on exploring Alaska's offshore territories, such fears are overblown. Shell officials point to the many exploratory wells that have already been drilled in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas without incident, and the company's success in keeping discharges in its offshore facilities in the Gulf of Mexico to a minimum, even during Hurricane Katrina. Shell acknowledges that a full-scale operation in the Arctic won't be risk-free, but the company has been drilling in Alaska's Cook Inlet for years without a catastrophe. "It's different than the Arctic, but it's every bit as challenging," says Peter Slaiby, the general manager of Shell Alaska. "When we go up there we'll be ready to address any oil spill from the moment we're on the ground."

Environmentalists, though, worry that the fragile Arctic and sub-Arctic environments could be damaged even if no oil is ever spilled. The polar bear, newly listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, roams the sea ice that forms each winter on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and bear populations are shrinking due to the impact of global warming on their habitat. The roads and pipelines and pumping stations that would inevitably accompany offshore oil development could put even more pressure on the animals. "The sea ice is already being hammered by global warming," says Margaret Williams, the managing director of the Bering Sea and Kamchatka program for the WWF. "If you explore for oil and natural gas, and add the disturbance of infrastructure, the Arctic is being hit with a triple whammy."

These fears are being acknowledged. In April, a U.S. court threw out a plan put forward by the Bush Administration to develop Alaska's offshore oil and gas on the grounds that the Department of the Interior — charged with regulating fossil-fuel development — had failed to properly consider the environmental sensitivity of the areas. Ken Salazar, President Barack Obama's Interior Secretary, has suspended new offshore leases, and seemed receptive to local concerns when he recently visited the Bristol Bay area. "Just Salazar coming here spoke volumes, and gave us hope that our voices will be heard," says Ralph Anderson, the head of the Bristol Bay Native Association.

In the Balance
in the long run, the bering, beaufort and chukchi Seas will be at increasing risk for a simple reason: economics. Even at the lower end of estimates, untapped oil deposits off Alaska's coast could be worth more than $1 trillion. The International Energy Association predicts that, barring major policy changes, global demand for oil will rise from 85 million barrels a day to 106 million barrels a day in 2030. That oil will need to come from somewhere, and in the U.S. that somewhere is likely to include Alaska. America can choose to forgo developing the state's offshore resources — although the public outcry over high gas prices last year shows how politically difficult that will be — but then it will just need to buy its oil from somewhere else, where environmental regulations might be weaker. "Offshore is needed to get the U.S. off foreign oil," says Marilyn Crockett, the executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. "We should be doing everything we can to reduce that dependence." Says Itta, the North Slope Borough mayor: "I do fear that a choice might be inevitable, and I'm not sure what the right one is. It's the kind of choice that wakes you up at 3:30 in the morning and you can't get back to sleep. How the hell do you balance it?"

It's a troubling question to ponder on a flawless afternoon as I sail past the crumbling glaciers of Prince William Sound, looking for traces of an accident that occurred 20 years ago. The taint of the Exxon Valdez has largely been dispersed. The sound, and the animals and people who live here, have recovered. Still, there's a lingering sense that paradise has been forever stained — and within that loss is a growing understanding that as long as we rely on oil, we'll never be free of the shadow of the Exxon Valdez. Riki Ott, the Prince William Sound biologist, fisherman and author, has traveled around the U.S. for the past few years as a public speaker, telling anyone who'll listen about how her home was harmed by the spill. She still holds out hope that the accident can change people's attitudes. She hopes, even, that a shift is already under way. "When I talk to people, they're not saying that they need more oil," Ott says. "They want a sustainable future for themselves and their kids." We're a long way from such a future. But it's one worth hoping for.