Oil Grab

With the attention of the press and the big greens rigidly fixated on the fate of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the Bush administration has quietly launched a quick strike on an equally pristine stretch of the arctic plain for massive oil and gas drilling.

The Bush Interior Department is set leasing off to big oil nearly 9 million acres of untrammeled tundra west of Prudhoe Bay. The area targeted for drilling sits in the northwest corner of the 22.5 million acre National Petroleum Reserve.

The National Petroleum Reserve, located on the Arctic plains just west of Prudhoe Bay, was set aside by President Warren Harding in 1923 and was only to be developed in the case of a national emergency. Control over the reserve’s oil was originally left in the hands of the US Navy, which proved a zealous guardian. The Navy resisted demands by big oil to open the reserve to drilling through the Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the energy crisis. Frustrated by the Navy’s obstinacy, the oil lobby pressured the Ford administration to transfer authority over the reserve from the Pentagon to the Interior Department, which has long done the oil industry’s bidding.

Through the 1980s the Interior Department began cobbling together different plans for opening the reserve, but none got very far, mainly because the Reagan and Bush administration’s were obsessed for political reasons with the doomed quest to tap into the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the 14 million acre swatch of tundra, lakes and mountains east of Prudhoe Bay.

Although the petroleum reserve is larger than ANWR, just as valuable ecologically and is still used for subsistence hunting and gathering by the Inupiat, the scheme to turn the coastal plains of the petroleum reserve into a full-scale oil field has gotten precious little public attention. Why? One reason is that environmental groups have focused all of their attention on saving ANWR, which has been under threat for two decades. The other, perhaps more telling reason, is that the heavy lifting in prying open the petroleum reserve to plunder by the oil companies was done by Bill Clinton and Bruce Babbitt in 1996.

In a cozy session with oil executives held in at a ranch in Jackson, Wyoming, Clinton and Babbitt agreed to deliver on two long sought goals: rescinding the ban on the export of Alaskan crude oil and opening the Alaskan petroleum reserve to drilling. Neither move generated much coverage by the national press.

Babbitt went to work and within months announced his intention to open the reserve to drilling, promising at the same time that he would “visit every lake and pond” to make sure the oil companies would not mar the tundra. On October 8, 1998, Babbitt signed the record of decision opening 4.6 million acres in the northeastern corner of the reserve to oil leasing.

In one of the more striking hypocrisies of the Clinton age, the green establishment largely went along with Babbitt’s plan to open the petroleum reserve, under the deluded impression that to do so meant they would be able to keep the oil companies out of ANWR.

Of course, by swallowing Babbitt’s plan to open the petroleum reserve to oil drilling the greens basically undermined nearly every ecological and cultural argument for keeping the drillers out of ANWR.

Like ANWR, the petroleum reserve is home to a caribou herd. But the Western Arctic caribou herd that migrates across the reserve is almost twice as large as the herd that travels across ANWR. Similarly, the petroleum reserve is home to a slate of declining species, including polar bears, Arctic wolves and foxes, and musk ox.

Unlike ANWR, the petroleum reserve contains one of the great rivers of the Arctic, the Colville River, the largest on the North Slope, which starts high in the Brooks Range and curves for 300 miles through the heart of the reserve to a broad delta on the Arctic Ocean near the Inupiat village of Nuiqsut.

The Colville River canyon and the nearby lakes and marshes is one of the world’s most important migratory bird staging areas. Over 20 percent of the entire population of Pacific black brant molt each year at Teshekpuk Lake alone. The bluffs along the Colville River are recognized as the most prolific raptor breeding grounds in the Arctic, providing critical habitat for
the peregrine falcon and rough-legged hawk.

Under the Bush plan, 9 million acres would be opened to drilling almost immediately and another 3 million acres, near the Inupiat village of Wainwright, would be opened later in the decade. The plan, tailored to meet the needs of ConocoPhillips, will call for 1,000s of wells, hundreds of miles of road, dozens of waste dumps and a network of pipelines to transport the oil to Prudhoe Bay and the trans-Alaska pipeline.

“It’s never enough for the Bush administration,” says Cindy Shogan, director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Wilderness League. “They won’t be happy until every acre in America’s arctic is a wasteland filled with oil, pipelines and roads.”

But oil and gas may not be the only objective. The BLM, which never misses an opportunity to pursue maximum development of public lands, estimates that the petroleum reserve may harbor approximately 40 percent of all coal remaining in the US (400 billion to 4 trillion US tons).

Coming soon: strip mines in the Arctic.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3