Slow-Motion Scandal: Opening the Arctic Slope to Oil Drilling


In March, the Biden administration controversially approved the massive Willow oil project on Alaska’s Arctic slope.  My Post Alley colleague Joel Connelly recently wrote a fine story about the move, which some people saw as a Biden betrayal.  The New York Times headlined a front-page story about Willow: “Alaska’s Pristine Wilderness Opens to Oil Boom.” Those phrases — “pristine wilderness,” “oil boom” – could have been lifted straight from the public debate over building the Trans Alaska Pipeline (TAP) to get crude oil from the Arctic slope to an all-season port half a century ago. Deja vu?

The approval of Willow will let ConocoPhillips drill up to 199 wells at three locations within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), west of Prudhoe Bay. The oil will make its way east across the Arctic Slope to the TAP pipeline, which will carry it 800 miles south to the all-season oil terminal at Valdez, from which tankers will carry it to refineries. (At first, federal approval of the pipeline required all the oil to go to refineries in the United States.  But under the Clinton administration that requirement was lifted, and now the oil can go anywhere.)

There’s another worry: Infrastructure developed for Willow may make it more attractive to drill in other parts of the petroleum reserve.  

Over the 30 years of its projected lifetime — given current assumptions about price, demand, and regulation — oil pumped at Willow and ultimately burned in car engines and elsewhere will release an estimated 254 million tons of carbon dioxide.  Environmental opponents have called it a “giant carbon bomb.” It would be that.  On an annual basis, though, the amount of CO2 released by Willow would represent barely more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s emissions.  In other words, it wouldn’t make things a whole lot worse.  That is a terrifying thought.

Of course, this wasn’t supposed to happen.  As Joel Connelly observed in PostAlley, when Biden was campaigning in 2020, he told a New Hampshire audience, “No more drilling on federal lands, Period, Period, Period.”  Reality seems to have intruded.  “So why has Biden, a president who has embraced strong action on climate change, approved a project dubbed a “carbon bomb,” Matt McGrath asked rhetorically for the BBC.  “It’s because Willow is very much about politics and the law.”

Whatever the eventual consequences, ConocoPhilips hasn’t wasted any time.  Just days after the Biden administration approved the Willow project, Lisa Friedman and Clifford Krauss wrote in that New York Times article, “the oil giant ConocoPhillips is already in motion, massing equipment and flying in workers and provisions.”

Some environmentalists were disillusioned when Biden made an exception for Willow, but major green groups – realizing that he’s still their best bet for leadership on climate change – have endorsed him for next year’s presidential election.

The administration’s approval of the Willow Project may have felt like it came out of the blue, but of course it didn’t.  It had plenty of history.

Fifty years ago this month, the Senate voted to allow construction of the TAP across federal land.  The Atlantic Richfield oil company – now ARCO – announced in 1968 that it had discovered a large oil field at the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay, east of the Willow site (and of “Pet 4,” the Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, as the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska was then called.) 

The big question was how to get the oil out of the Arctic.  People talked about ice-breaking tankers that could crash through the Arctic sea ice, submarine tankers that could slip under it.  But the oil companies that mattered settled on an 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.  They ordered the pipe from Japan and by the end of 1969, nearly four years before Congress approved, had already stockpiled 100 miles of it at Valdez. 

The project was controversial from the start. Environmentalists worried that the four-foot-diameter pipeline would form a physical barrier to migrating caribou, but most of their nightmares featured oil spills.  That nightmare made sense, since oil spills were very much on people’s minds.  The Santa Barbara spill at the beginning of 1969 made news around the world, produced images of oil-coated seabirds, and helped jump-start the modern U.S. environmental movement.  Two years before, the supertanker Torrey Canyon hit rocks off the English coast, spilling oil that fouled beaches in Brittany and Cornwall in what was the first supertanker disaster.

People worried that a supertanker carrying North Slope oil to refineries in the lower 48 could spill oil into the sea, and that a supertanker bound for a big oil port in Puget Sound could spill oil into the enclosed waters of the Sound. An oil spill in the Arctic could absorb solar radiation and melt the Arctic sea ice. Heat radiating from the pipeline (the oil has to be heated so that it will flow) would melt the permafrost.  And everyone knew that North Slope oil would just deepen our national commitment to a petroleum-based economy.

On the other hand, Alaskan politicians and business leaders saw dollar signs. Other backers of North Slope oil development saw less dependence on Middle Eastern oil producers.

Alaskan Native leaders saw an opportunity.  They were asserting claims to the vast land that, unlike in the Lower 48, they had never given away by treaty.  If the United States wanted title to the land, it had to pay the tribes.  Some very high-end legal talent signed on.  Key members of Congress didn’t believe in the legality of Native claims, but they certainly believed in the Natives’ ability to hold up the pipeline project.  In 1972, Congress cleared the way by passing the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, which awarded the Natives title to 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion.

The next year, a bill to approve pipeline construction came before Congress.  The Senate deadlocked.  The tie was broken by Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew.  You could call this the high point of Agnew’s career.  Certainly, it was one of the LAST points.  Months later, under investigation for bribery and extortion, he resigned from the vice-presidency and pled guilty to a felony charge of income tax evasion. (He didn’t go to jail.)  

While we’re on the subject of milestones let’s not forget that this year marks a century since the administration of President Warren G. Harding created Pet 4.  The famously corrupt Harding administration added it to a group of petroleum reserves set aside to assure a fuel supply for U.S. Navy vessels that had just switched over from burning coal. 

The Teapot Dome scandal had just broken.  Harding’s Secretary of the Interior had given private parties sweetheart deals to drill in Wyoming’s Teapot Dome reserve and another in California.  So Pet 4 was created in the midst of a scandal. 

But why right there on the North Slope?  People had known about the petroleum there for generations since it seeped out of the earth, even forming an oily lake.  Mostly after World War II, but all the way from 1944 to 1981, people drilled wells there to get a better idea of what the reserve contained, but for most of that time, there was no good way to get it out of the Arctic.  And there wouldn’t be until Spiro broke that Senate tie.

All this set me to wonder: Is there a roughly-50-year cycle for criminality in high places?  That’s just about the interval from Nixon and Agnew forward to Trump.  And back from Spiro and Tricky Dick to the Harding administration.  And back before that to the scandal-scarred administration of Ulysses S. Grant.

Meanwhile what happened to the Navy?  Soon after the oil embargo, Congress transformed the Naval Reserve into National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, and transferred control from the Navy to the Interior Department, so that private industry could drill in the area.  Then in 1980, right after the Iranian revolution created another oil shock, Congress instructed the Bureau of Land Management to sell drilling leases.  That didn’t happen much until the late 1990s. Eventually, ConocoPhilips got Willow approved in the final months of the Trump administration.  (Environmentalists sued, and a federal judge ruled the environmental impact statement was inadequate.  The proposal was scaled back, the Biden administration approved, and this time, the court didn’t send anyone back to the drawing board.)

And what happened to the hopes and fears the pipeline once inspired? Alaskan oil did spill.  In 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez loaded with North Slope crude hit a reef in Prince William Sound and dumped 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water, creating what is still the largest tanker spill and the second-largest spill of any kind in U.S. history.  The idea of a big spill wasn’t just a bogeyman

No supertanker spilled oil into Puget Sound. In 1977, the year the pipeline opened for business, Washington’s Sen. Warren Magnuson pushed through legislation that kept the federal government from approving any new or expanded oil port east of Port Angeles.

Oil didn’t cover the Arctic sea ice, and heat from the pipeline didn’t melt the permafrost. But, of course, both sea ice and permafrost are melting anyway, and North Slope oil has been a small part of the cause.  Those environmental nightmares may not have been exactly accurate, but the fears have proven much more than paranoid fantasies.  Fifty years ago, people worried mainly that the oil wouldn’t reach its destination.  Now, they worry mainly that it will.

The early hopes — beyond jobs and money, which worked out just fine — turned out to be delusional.  Total independence of the Middle East was never more than a pipe dream, as oil experts knew at the time.  The more modest goal of reducing dependence on distant and potentially hostile parts of the world as the first pipeline EIS put it, also proved over-optimistic.

Oil from the Alaskan Arctic never allowed us to turn our backs on the oil-producing states of the Middle East.  Thanks to fracking, we produce as much oil as anyone by now, but OPEC still controls the price.  Much as the Biden administration clearly wanted to keep Saudi Arabia at arm’s length, last year saw Biden make a rather humiliating concession to oil economics. 

As oil prices soared, Biden — who had promised to treat Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as a “pariah,” because MBS had allegedly ordered the murder of dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi — went to Saudi Arabia, met with Bin Salman, and notoriously fist-bumped him. Biden evidently urged the prince to jack production, in order to hold down U.S gas prices, which were stoking a lot of American discontent before the 2022 midterm elections. Biden also released oil from the nation’s strategic reserve in what seemed primarily a gesture toward doing something about gas prices before the election. (Hard to imagine any other president not doing something similar.)

Up to a point, the Saudis can still manipulate oil prices, and those prices still affect U.W. politics. Not exactly what North Slope oil optimists had in mind. Some of us envision a world that no longer runs on petroleum, but that’s not the world we live in now.

Washington’s late Sen. Henry M. Jackson certainly thought so.  Years before the pipeline was approved, Jackson — who chaired the Senate Interior Committee and whose National Environmental Policy Act had recently passed — was asked about the pipeline debate.  Jackson said that “no power on earth” could keep that North Slope oil from coming out.  He was probably right.  Would it be right to say the same thing about the oil at Willow?  “No power on earth” has done it yet.


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